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Head Over Boots

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It was greener than she had expected. Even though patches of dirty snow held on in hollows and depressions, sagebrush and tufts of bright green grass were beginning to emerge. Roiling gray clouds swept overhead, carried by westerly winds that had Clarke clutching at the steering wheel as her car bounced along the dirt road. She had left behind the gridlock of the city, passed through snowy mountain passes and endless forests, and now found herself in this land of rolling hills and open skies.

It felt like another world. And there she was, on her own, going to a place she had never been, to work for a woman she had never met, to do a job that she had never done.

Not for the first time that day, Clarke asked herself what the fuck she was doing.

Polis, the small town half an hour back on the dirt road, had been enough of a culture shock: there had been a horse tied up on Main Street in one of the parking spaces; literally everyone drove an enormous truck; and cowboy hats seemed to be the hottest fashion trend. She couldn’t believe that towns like this still existed.

So what was a college grad city girl doing there?

(Leaving her friends behind. Abandoning her family. Running away from her problems.)

That all too familiar worry stirred again in Clarke’s stomach, but she had thought this true. She knew this was the right choice. She tried to fight down her anxiety by turning up the radio. The country station crackled a bit, and country was far from her favorite genre, but it was the only station she could pick up out there.

I wanna sweep you off your feet tonight

I wanna love you and hold you tight

Spin you around on some old dance floor

Act like we never met before, for fun

It was a campy song, but kind of catchy too. But Clarke’s attention was back on the road, when her car hit yet another pothole in the road. She tried to avoid another, even deeper hole in the road, but she somehow managed to hit it straight on. Her car shuddered in protest. If her tires and suspension survived this trip, she would be surprised.

(Would she survive this trip?) She just turned the radio higher.

‘Cause you’re the one I want, you’re the one I need

Baby, if I was a king, you would be my queen

You’re the rock in my roll, you’re good for my soul, it’s true

I’m head over boots for you.

Despite everything, Clarke laughed to herself. She had never heard such a ridiculous song. The lyrics and the country twang contrasted starkly with Clarke’s mood, but somehow, they made her feel a little better.

She had been driving for two days, trying to let the big skies and open roads let her mind drift to nothing. Of course, that hadn’t worked. If didn’t matter that she knew Finn was an asshole and her mom was a control freak, or that she had confirmed her decision to leave town over and over again. Clarke still pored over what had happened, her shock, her grudges, and she felt them more strongly than ever. She would never forgive Finn for what he had done. He didn’t deserve it, and frankly, Clarke wasn’t above hating someone for the rest of her life. Why should she waste her time forgiving someone if he don’t even think what he did was wrong?

Clarke just gripped the steering wheel even tighter, her knuckles turning white. Between Finn disrespecting her and her mom trying to control her life, Clarke had had enough. She had needed to get away from everything and everyone. And somehow, that had meant applying for this job on a beef cattle ranch in the middle of nowhere Montana. She hadn’t really expected the phone call that had come in the next day, saying she was accepted right then on the spot. But that didn’t stop her from packing her bags and leaving town without saying a word.

That wasn’t quite true. She had told her best friend, Raven, and made her promise not to tell her mom where she had gone. Even though Raven thought she was crazy and begged her not to get trampled in a stampede, she had still supported her. Clarke was lucky to have her, which only make it more difficult to leave her behind.

But Clarke needed a fresh start. And a ranch one thousand miles away from home was about as fresh as they came.

The way you sparkle like a diamond ring

Maybe one day we can make it a thing

Test time and grow old together

Rock in our chairs and talk about the weather, yeah

As she crested another short hill, Clarke thought she could see some kind of structure ahead. It was the first thing besides dirt, grass, and fencing she had seen since leaving Polis. But even though she was grateful that her drive was almost over, Clarke struggled to stop her heart from racing.

She had signed a year-long contract to work on a cattle ranch…

What the hell was she thinking?

‘Cause you’re the one I want, you’re the one I need

Baby, if I was a king, you would be my queen

You’re the rock in my roll, you’re good for my soul, it’s true

I’m head over boots for you.

As the country song wound down and transitioned to an advertisement about cattle feed, the structures ahead were finally near enough for Clarke to analyze them more thoroughly. The one-story wooden cabin looked well-maintained, with a fresh coat of stain and a dull black roof keeping the elements at bay. A front porch with a porch swing made it look more inviting. A weathered pick-up truck sat in front, mud flaring out from the tire wells. And behind a somewhat dilapidated barn, about one hundred cattle with thick black fur were scattered inside a corral behind a somewhat dilapidated barn.

Clarke turned off of the dirt road under a battered arch that read “Woods Ranch.” Clarke thought the name wasn’t particularly fitting, considering she could only see a small line of trees near a stream, and the rest of the property appeared to be open grassland. She pulled up next to the truck and stopped the engine.

Without the radio blaring or the car rattling over the dirt road, the sudden quiet was oppressive. Clarke glanced back up to the cabin, almost reluctantly. These last few steps would lock her into this future that she had chosen for herself. She could start up the car right now, back up, and return down the long road and never look back.

But then the image of Finn trying to cover himself with the sheet, as the girl in bed with him looked in surprise at Clarke and then back at Finn, flashed before her eyes. He hadn’t told the other girl about Clarke, and he hadn’t told Clarke about her either.

Lying asshole. And she had wasted a year of her life on him.

Clarke stepped out of the car and slammed the door behind her. The rushing wind almost seemed to absorb the sound. Only the slightest squeak from the ranch sign broke the silence. Unlike her hometown, there was no rush of traffic, no honking or passing of busses or laughter or people. Here, all was still.

And it scared her more than anything had so far.

“Are you lost?”

Clarke turned back toward the cabin. A woman, slender but athletic, stood towering over her on the porch despite her average height. Her brunette hair was swept over one shoulder in a tight braid, and her full lips were held in a somber line. Her eyes rested heavily on Clarke, unwavering.

Despite the woman’s insulting tone, Clarke still had to remind herself not to stare.

Clarke held her shoulders back and kept her head high. She had expected a warmer welcome. “I’m the new hire, Clarke. And you are?”

But rather than answer, the woman lifted an eyebrow and shook out a pair of work gloves that had been stuffed behind her belt. A cloud of dust rose around her. “You’re seriously the one that Anya hired? Is this some kind of joke?”

Clarke did not travel almost one thousand miles to be ridiculed before she even had a chance to work. “The only joke here is your lack of social skills,” she said firmly, refusing to be intimidated.

The woman paused her glove cleaning and glared at Clarke under her eyebrows. It sent a shiver down Clarke’s spine. The other woman’s stare was cold and calculating, but that didn’t explain why Clarke’s mouth had suddenly gone dry.

The woman stepped down from the porch and stood just inside Clarke’s comfort zone. Clarke had to force herself to stay put.

“I'm Lexa Woods,” the woman said, quietly but with authority, as she stared at Clarke from less than an arm length away. “And I own this ranch.”

From this distance, Clarke could discern much more about her appearance: a sharp jawline; dark green eyes, cool and unaffected; and lips that Clarke would describe as pouting, if they weren’t part of Lexa’s stony glare. She wore no make-up, and was only dressed in dirty jeans and a thick flannel, and yet she held herself like royalty.

If not for her terrible attitude, Clarke might have thought she was beautiful.

“I’m Clarke Griffin.” Clarke extended her hand into the small space between them and held it there. She was going to be professional, even if Lexa wouldn’t be.

Lexa didn’t even look at Clarke’s hand, but she didn’t have to--they were standing so close together that Clarke knew she must have seen it. Lexa’s gaze just continued to burn into her, and the seconds became unbearable.

But Clarke had had enough. This woman--Lexa--couldn’t even respect her enough to shake her hand. She moved to lower her arm, storm back to her car, and get the fuck out of there, when a warm hand suddenly enveloped her own. Thick callouses rubbed against her palm, so unlike the city hands that Clarke was accustomed to. But despite the roughness of Lexa’s skin and the strength of her grip, Clarke was most astounded by the slender length of fingers and how neatly they fit into her own.

“I hope you know what you’re getting yourself into,” Lexa said, placing both of her hands behind her back. She looked Clarke up and down. “And that you brought more practical work clothes with you.”

Clarke folded her arms in front of her chest. Was it her imagination, or did Lexa's gaze flicker down for a split second? “I have everything I need.” Clarke actually had no idea what she would need over this year, but Lexa didn’t need to know that. “And listen, it’ll be great proving to you that I’m not a horrible employee. But in the meantime, it’s been a long day, and I’d like to move into my room.”

Clarke may have imagined it, but she thought that Lexa’s lips turned up ever so slightly. But as soon as Clarke had seen it, the smile was gone. Maybe her employer did have a sense of humor after all. That would be something to explore (as if there was anything else to do around here besides work).

“Follow me,” Lexa said, already turning back to the cabin.

That left Clarke scrambling back toward the car for her two bags, but even in her rush, she noticed the hissing of air out of her rear driver’s side tire. It was already flat.

“Shit,” Clarke cursed to herself. She didn’t even have a spare.  If she had wanted to turn back, there wasn’t much chance of that happening now.

Tossing the bags over her shoulders, Clarke realized that Lexa had already gone inside the cabin without her.

Of course she had.

If Lexa was going to be her boss for the next year and persisted in being such a hardass, a flat tire may be the least of Clarke’s problems.



**********



Clarke placed her other pair of pants--also skinny jeans--into the solid-wood drawers in her room. Everything was wood: the walls, the bedposts, the small desk in the corner, the chair… it was like an entire forest was felled just to build this cabin and all the furniture in it. Based on the hew marks, Clarke guessed that someone on the ranch had made everything themselves.

When she stepped out of her room and into the kitchen, Lexa was sitting at the adjoining wooden table with a few thick folders splayed out in front of her. Her brow was wrinkled as she frowned down at the papers, and Clarke wondered what she would look like if she weren’t angry or impatient, or if those were her only emotions. A steaming cup of tea sat on the table beside her, but there wasn’t one for Clarke. After the greeting she had gotten before, Clarke couldn’t say she was surprised.

“If something doesn’t change this season,” Lexa began without preamble, not even looking at her, “I’m going to lose the ranch.”

Clarke sat beside her, close enough to read the papers. There was more red ink than black. “And why is that?” She was at least happy that Lexa was talking about the ranch and not criticizing her anymore.

“My calves keep dying,” Lexa said simply, flipping to another sheet in the folder. It had a graph showing a clear downward trend. “I’ve managed this ranch for seven years, but this is the worst I’ve ever seen. Calf mortality reached 40% last year.”

“And without those sales, you won’t be able to keep the ranch running,” Clarke surmised. “But what seems to be the cause?”

“You name it, and it’s happening. Cold snaps in the spring and fall, parasites, breached births, mothers refusing their calves…”

Lexa said it all mechanically, but Clarke saw her swallow past a lump in her throat. All of this seemed to upset Lexa greatly, even if she didn’t betray it in her tone.

“We were able to keep up when we had Nyko,” Lexa continued, finally looking at Clarke. “But he needed to go back to his family’s ranch. Anya and I thought we could manage the herd ourselves, but she’s already spread thin with her accounting business. Which leads us to why you’re here.”

Lexa leaned forward slightly, her hands folding on top of the table. “Your first priority will be to raise calf survival to at least 90%. Beyond that, you’ll effectively be second in command in daily operations.”

Second in command? Clarke realized her jaw was hanging open, and she shut it up tight, her teeth grinding together. Anything she knew about running a ranch came from one livestock management course she had taken in college last year. And while she had taken three years of animal biology courses, most of those were centered on dogs and cats, not livestock.

Clarke was deciding on the best ways to exaggerate her knowledge and abilities, when someone barged through the cabin’s front door. A thin woman with blonde streaks in her hair huffed her way to the table, dropping her briefcase there with a crash.

“I’m late,” the woman announced with no hint of apology. She wore a collared shirt underneath her sweater, which were in stark contrast to Clarke’s casual driving clothes and Lexa’s flannel. “And you must be Clarke. I’m Anya, the one who hired you.”

“Pleased to meet you in person,” Clarke said, though she didn’t extend her hand for a handshake this time. She had learned her lesson with Lexa. Clarke gave Lexa a sidelong glance. “We were just discussing how the ranch is in trouble.”

“Don’t let Lexa scare you,” Anya assured her, as she opened the refrigerator and removed an apple. She took a large bite and talked while chewing. (Clarke decided right then and there that she liked Anya.) “All she needs is one solid year to turn things around. This isn’t the apocalypse.”

But Lexa looked far from satisfied. “I’d say that losing the ranch qualifies as apocalyptic.” She returned her icy stare to Clarke. “All you need to worry about is the calves. We will add other duties after calving season is finished. How are your corralling skills?”

The closest to corralling Clarke had ever been was visiting the buffet at Golden Corral. “A little rusty,” she lied.

Lexa’s expression darkened. “And how are you on horseback?”

Clarke nearly choked on nothing right there. At least it would put her out of her misery. “Not bad. But it’s been a while.”

(Her rich friend’s third grade birthday party, to be exact.)

Lexa turned sharply to Anya, all fury now. “Are you telling me that you hired someone with no ranch experience? How is that going to help us? I won’t have time to train her and take care of the ranch.”

Anya continued eating the apple, unperturbed. “People with vet skills aren’t exactly lining up to rough it in the middle of nowhere for a year, you know that? We’re lucky we found anyone at all.”

Both women looked over to Clarke, Lexa glowering and Anya not much more welcoming.

Clarke forced herself to sit tall under their scrutiny. She may not know exactly what she was getting herself into, but there was no way in hell she would let herself be underestimated by people who didn’t even know her.

“If things are as bad as you say they are,” Clarke said, her gaze sliding between the two women, “then we better get to work.”

Right on cue, a bleat from behind the cabin broke the tense silence. Lexa was on her feet in less than a second, and Clarke followed close behind her.

“One of the cows is going into labor,” Lexa announced evenly. “For all of our sakes, Clarke, I hope you’re better at this than I think you are.”

A cow was going into labor? Now ? Clarke hadn’t even been on the ranch for twenty minutes. Clarke glared at Lexa in a way that she hoped covered up the shaking in her knees. “If you want to fire me after today, then do it. But don’t judge me until you’ve seen what I can do.”

Lexa paused in front of the door, turning back to her. She stared at her for a long moment, before giving her a single nod. She pulled on her field jacket and headed outside.

Clarke had no choice but to follow.



**********



Everyone said that the miracle of life was beautiful. But Clarke thought that they had never kneeled at the business end of a birthing cow before.

The cold wind whipped around them, and Clarke shivered despite wearing the warmest jacket she owned. Thick rubber gloves covered her hands and arms up to her elbow, and she blanched at the idea of actually needing gloves that extended that far.

The pregnant cow lay on her side, black fur contrasting against the snow. She inhaled short, quick breaths, and Clarke thought her own breathing might match the cow’s before too long.

She had studied calf birthing, and even watched her instructor handle a birth at one of their hands-on farm units last year. But being here, having to do it herself, with her employer who could fire her at any moment for not knowing what she was doing? That was almost more stress than Clarke knew how to handle on her first day.

Lexa kneeled down beside her and pulled on another pair of rubber gloves. “When the calf starts to emerge, you have to make sure it’s coming out the right way. If it’s not, you’ll have to reach in and turn the calf around. If everything is going well, all you’ll need to do is watch.”

“Right,” Clarke acknowledged, half-listening to her. She knew that if the calf didn’t come out with its head and front hooves , then they could be dealing with a breached calf or backwards birth, both of which Clarke only had theoretical knowledge of.

She really hoped it didn’t come to that.

The cow’s stomach heaved in front of her, and Clarke realized how crazy this all was. She should be back home, watching Netflix with Raven. Or starting her doctorate, Or even back at her old waitressing job. Or--

Another cow in the pasture began bleating, and Lexa rose up immediately. “Another cow is giving birth. Ask Anya if you need any help.”

And just like that, Lexa was running across the pasture to a cow on the far side of it, the thin layer of snow crunching under her feet. The other expectant mothers in the field were chewing the cud as if Clarke wasn’t about to hyperventilate.

Standing behind Clarke’s shoulder with her arms crossed, Anya made a sound of disgust. “You’re as good as on your own, Clarke. I’ll corral cattle and market beef until my face turns blue, but this? No way.”

Clarke felt what little blood was left in her cheeks drain away. “Thanks. Very reassuring.”

She checked that she had all of the supplies: disinfectant, scissors for the umbilical cord, gloves, rope… But what she really needed was some goddamn experience.

Clarke could see the cow’s muscles pushing downward, and a tiny glimpse of the calf’s hooves emerged.

“No, no no… are those its back feet?” Clarke quickly glanced back to Anya.

“Could be,” Anya said nonchalantly, as she finished her apple. “I hope you know what you’re doing. Mostly because I don’t want to go through the trouble of hiring someone else again.”

Clarke was barely listening to her. She was trying desperately to think back to her textbook, to the (somewhat gruesome) video of a backwards birth that they had watched in class. If the calf wasn’t delivered in three or four minutes, it would drown inside the birthing canal.

“OK, I’m going to disinfect my gloves…” Clarke spoke out loud to herself as she splashed disinfect onto the rubber. “And I’ll need to get the calf turned around. Easy as pie.”

“Everyone always says that,” Anya drawled behind her, looking with fascination at the cow. “But have they ever made a pie? It’s not easy at all.”

“I’ll tie the rope around the calf’s feet…” Clarke said, ignoring her. She was amazed at how steady her voice was. In fact, she felt herself relaxing as she went through the steps. It was coming back to her. She remembered the checklist, and all she had to do was follow it.

(She hoped that would be enough.)

She did her best to force that nagging worry from her mind, as she worked a rope around the calve’s leg. “And now the tricky part will be to get the calf’s hips out. We’ll just need to…”

Clarke reached a hand into the mother and could feel the slimy calf under her glove. The mother shifted in protest, but Clarke did her best to soothe her. “It’s OK, you’re going to be OK.”

(She realized the words may have been more to herself.)

She repositioned the calf’s hips slightly, took hold of the rope, and tugged backward slowly but firmly. The mother continued to shift and even looked back towards Clarke, but Clarke just kept going--it’s all she could do. The calf couldn't’ breathe, and if she didn’t hurry, it would die.

With one firmer tug, the calf emerged all the way to its shoulder, and Clarke cried out in joy. She was doing it. She was actually helping a cow give birth. What awful comments would Raven make if she saw her with one hand literally inside a cow…

Clarke could feel Anya’s stare on her as she worked. “Fuck. Clarke, you’re actually doing it.”

“Don’t act so surprised,” Clarke mumbled, as the calf fell onto the ground behind the mother.

Clarke waited for the calf to start breathing, and after a few agonizing seconds, it took its first breath and sneezed. The calf opened its big eyes and looked at Clarke with the most innocent expression that she had ever seen in her life. She had never thought about calves as cute before, but this one? Clarke could feel her heart melting.

But she took a step back, as the mother cow rose to her feet and started sniffing her calf. The cow began lickings its fur, still wet from the birth, and eventually the calf rose up on four shaky feet and started suckling.

Clarke didn’t know how long she stood there, staring at the mom and her new calf--a baby girl--but she snapped out of it when Lexa returned to her side, eyes wide at the sight of the calf.

“You did it,” Lexa announced, just as surprised as Anya, but Clarke was too enamoured by the newborn to care.

“Yeah, I did it.” Clarke couldn’t help but beam at that, and she finally turned to Lexa to find her staring at her. “I gave birth to a backwards calf.”

“Backwards?” Lexa asked, looking to Anya for confirmation.

Anya nodded. “But Clarke just reached in there and yanked it out in two minutes flat. Faster than I’ve ever seen anybody do it.”

Lexa said nothing, but Clarke could see the wheels turning in her head.

Finally, Lexa seemed to reach a conclusion. “The other calf’s birth was normal, but the mother doesn’t want to accept it. Do you want to take a look?”

Clarke thought this might be the closest thing to an apology she would get from Lexa for underestimating her. “Does that mean you’re not firing me?”

Despite Clarke’s joking tone, Lexa didn’t even crack a smile. “For now.”



**********



Clarke’s footsteps were quiet on the cabin’s hardwood floor, as she shuffled groggily across the planks in thick wool socks. She knew it was April, and April back home meant spring, with warmer temperatures and a transition away from sweaters and fleece and wool socks. But here, Clarke was still wrapped in every warm article of clothing that she had brought. And she was still cold.

“Morning,” she yawned, or attempted to yawn, shambling into the kitchen.

Evidently, the entire cattle herd decided to birth their calves all at once after Clarke had arrived, which meant long days of supervising the process and longer nights watching those cows that didn’t adhere to a silly thing called daylight to give birth. Night after night, she was awoken by Lexa shaking her arm to tell her there was another problematic birth.

Over the past three days, she couldn’t have gotten more than six hours of sleep. And it was beginning to show.

Clarke barely noticed that Lexa and Anya had ignored her morning greeting. She dropped unceremoniously down into the empty chair at the kitchen table.

“No more baby cows today,” Clarke mumbled to herself as she poured herself a cup of coffee from a thermos. “Tell them to wait until tomorrow.”

Lexa glanced up at her from the pile of papers on the table, her usual annoyance simmering. “We had our last birth a few hours ago. I took care of it.”

Clarke frowned at the news. “Why didn’t you wake me? I thought you wanted me to supervise all of the births, since I’m so good at it and all.”

(No one was more surprised about that fact than Clarke.)

Lexa looked away from her back to the papers. “I was going to wake you, but you looked tired.”

“No shit. I’ve barely gotten any sleep for days. And neither have you.” When Lexa didn’t respond, Clarke sighed and softened her approach. “I want to carry my own weight around here, you know.”

Anya perked up at that. “You already are. Calf survival is at 100% so far. You guys can expect to lose a few over the season, but we’re miles ahead of where we were last year.” Anya leaned toward Lexa, smirking. “This is where I say ‘I told you so.’”

Clarke watched Lexa’s reaction carefully, but if she was ashamed at all for underestimating Clarke, she didn’t let anything show. But then Lexa rose abruptly from the table, and Clarke thought that was all the tell she needed.

“We need supplies, Clarke” Lexa said as she took a set of keys from the hook on the wall and tossed them on the table in front of Clarke. “Vaccinations, insecticide, dewormer. I’ve already placed the order in town, but you’ll need to pick them up.”

Clarke frowned into her cup of coffee and grumbled. “I woke up at 6am just to drive to town?”

Insolence was not the way to impress Lexa, judging by how she folded her arms and glared down at her. Clarke tried not to notice how the move accentuated the muscles of her forearms revealed by her rolled-up flannel sleeves. She really hadn’t gotten enough sleep if she was checking out her asshole of an employer.

“We need them as soon as possible, so we can administer them as soon as possible,” Lexa explained in that obnoxiously steady tone of hers. “Having a 100% birthing rate with 50% disease mortality because we didn’t vaccinate them quickly enough would be unacceptable.”

Lexa could be positively didactic, and it drove Clarke crazy. “Obviously. Just let me have some breakfast first and I’ll head out.”

Clarke rose to the refrigerator, feeling Lexa’s eyes burning a hole into the back of her head but not caring. She opened the door and sighed. “For real? You guys finished off the eggs and the milk? Guess I’m going grocery shopping, too.”

“Told you she would be pissed,” Anya muttered to Lexa.

Lexa just quirked an eyebrow. “If she wanted breakfast, she should have woken up earlier.”

Typical, thought Clarke. She changed into her skinny jeans and wool sweater, snatched the truck keys from the table, and shrugged on her jacket from the hook next to the door. She knew it would be freezing outside and that despite her best efforts, she would be shivering the entire way. But at least she wouldn’t have to deal with Lexa for a couple hours.

The sun had just risen over the horizon, awakening the grassland with light that held little warmth. Valleys were still wrapped in darkness, harboring the last of the season’s snow. Clarke wondered how it would ever melt. Just up the hill, the herd moved lazily in a pasture lined on one side by still-bare trees along a stream. It was a perfect place for her to keep an eye on the newborn calves for the next few days. But soon, all the grass there would be consumed, and the cattle would have to be transferred to a new pasture. And at some point, they would need to give the calves their first vaccinations. And then the calves would need to be branded…

The work truly never stopped around here. As exciting as it had been to see the new calves come into the world, Clarke just wanted to get a full night’s sleep.

Of course, having her employer start believing in her would be nice, too. There was no reason why Lexa was still treating her so coldly. Clarke had managed to save at least five calves that wouldn’t have made it otherwise. What else did Clarke have to do to prove herself? Save a calf from drowning in a stream? Eliminate every flea from the herd? Fight off a bear with nothing but a lasso and her sharp wit?

(She didn’t even know if there were bears around there.)

Still simmering, Clarke climbed into the unlocked truck--they didn’t bother locking any of the doors around here--and settled into the seat. But as she moved to start the truck, she froze.

It was a manual. She had never driven a manual in her life.

Shit.

But she could figure this out… how hard could it be? Besides, Clarke would be damned if she had to go back to the cabin and beg Lexa or Anya to teach her how to drive this thing.

After a few tries and experiments with the clutch, Clarke got the truck started and glared at the road in front of her as if it were an enemy to be defeated. She slowly hit the gas…

And the engine gave out immediately.

“You have got to be shitting me,” Clarke raged to herself, depressing the clutch and starting the truck again.

She looked in the rearview mirror, hoping against hope that Lexa wouldn’t be watching her do this. But sure enough, there she was on the front porch, wearing her thick flannel and a smirk that was a mile wide.

“You condescending, asshole, prick…” Clarke muttered to herself.

By the time she got the engine started again, Lexa was already walking toward her from the porch. But by some stroke of luck, Clarke managed to start rolling forward and out from under the Woods Ranch front gate, leaving Lexa in a cloud of dust that the woman had to wave away with a hand.

“Serves you right,” Clarke said to herself through her smile. It felt good to rub it in Lexa’s face that she wasn’t some clueless, uppity urbanite (at least not all the time).  

She was over the next hill before the engine died again, out of sight of the ranch. But after some choice words, Clarke got the truck started again and practiced her upshifting and downshifting, accelerating and braking. By the time she arrived in Polis, Clarke was at least satisfied that Lexa would have to find another reason than her manual driving skills to make fun of her.

Because for some reason, Clarke needed to not just earn a paycheck from her employer.

She needed to earn her respect.



**********



The engine sputtering in protest, Clarke pulled into Polis’ one diner. It didn’t even have a name, because it was the only act in town and didn’t need one. It was more busy than she thought any place should be at 7 o’clock in the morning, but she supposed that most people who lived there must also be living on ranch time.

Clarke took the last booth available. The diner’s walls were lined with black and white photos of ranch workers, horses galloping on rolling hills of grass, and plenty of supposedly award-winning cattle (but they all looked the same to Clarke: vaguely cute but kind of stupid).

“Haven’t seen your face around here before,” a dark-haired, middle-aged waitress said, coming by her table and pouring her a cup of coffee. She waited expectantly for Clarke’s answer.

“A new hire,” Clarke explained, curious if she could get some information from her if she spilled a few useless facts first. “At Woods Ranch. My employer likes to starve me in the mornings, so here I am.”

The waitress barked a laugh. “Sounds like Lexa. She can be a bit rough on people until she gets to know them.”

For some reason, Clarke was surprised by the waitress’ use of her boss’s first name. It seemed too personal. “You know Lexa?”

“Of course,” the waitress said, as if it were obvious. “Everyone knows Lexa. She and her daddy practically ran this town, rest his soul.”

“Oh, I didn’t realize….” Clarke hesitated. She hadn’t known that Lexa’s father had passed away, but she had been wondering how a woman only a little older than herself came to be the sole owner of a 150-cattle operation. “When did that happen?”

The waitress held her chin thoughtfully. “Oh gosh, seven or eight years ago now. She hasn’t been in town as much since it happened. But then, she must be busy running the ranch by herself. Any breakfast for you this morning, since Lexa’s starving you out there? We’ve got great pancakes.”

“That sounds great,” Clarke said, watching the waitress leave and walk around to the other tables to refill cups of coffee.

Just then, Clarke’s cell phone started vibrating in her pocket nonstop. She had almost forgotten to bring it. Without any cell coverage on ranch, carrying her phone around had already fallen out of habit. But back in cell service, she scrolled through the long list of texts and missed calls.

She deleted Finn’s messages without even reading them. He was officially cut out of her life, even if he didn’t realize it yet. Her mom’s texts were harder to ignore. She hesitated for a long time, thumbs hovering over the screen, but eventually typed out only “I’m safe.” She considered telling her at least what state she was in, but that would only lead to more questions and more guilt trips that Clarke didn’t have the energy to deal with.

But finally, she opened Raven’s texts, which Raven must have sent yesterday when Clarke was in the reception dead zone at the ranch.

Raven: if you get ax murdered at the ranch, do i get your stuff??

Raven: not your CD collection tho because LOL i can only take so much christina aguilera

Raven: who tf even owns CDs anymore you nerd

Raven: ok jokes i don’t care about your stuff but i do want to know you’re OK. call me anytime i mean it!

Still waiting for her pancakes, Clarke decided to see if Raven actually meant that. She accepted that it was going to voicemail after the fifth ring, but then a groggy voice croaked into her ear.

“You better be dying,” Raven grumbled, thick with sleep.

“Good morning, Raven!” Clarke said in her most chipper tone. “I got your texts.”

“Good? I think?” A commotion sounded on the other end. “Fuck Clarke, it’s 6:13 in the morning.”

“7:13 here. And you said I could call you at any time.” The coffee must have been kicking in, because Clarke was feeling much more energized. Or maybe that was just from hearing Raven’s voice again. Not getting to see her best friend and roommate was the hardest part of the move (besides not knowing if she would make a complete jackass of herself on the ranch).

“You can call me anytime I’m awake, obviously,” Raven groaned. “I didn’t think I would need to specify that. You don’t wake up before 10am unless there’s a morning exam worth more than 30% of your grade.”

“Not true,” Clarke insisted. “I skipped one exam that was worth 15% because I was already getting over 100% in the course. What can I say, I’m an expert at mammal physiology.”

“So the rumors about you are true,” Raven jabbed before sighing loud enough for Clarke to have to hold her phone away from her ear. “OK wait, just let me put some coffee on or something. Fuck, it’s early.”

Clarke heard some shuffling on the other end, as she supposed Raven was getting out of bed and heading to the kitchen.

“OK, I’m back,” Raven said. “Coffee’s being made. So what the fuck, Clarke. Are you out there? Did you make it? You didn’t answer my texts.”

Clarke laughed to herself. Raven always swore like a sailor, even first thing in the morning. She was glad the waitress was nowhere to be seen, because she knew her phone speaker was always a little too loud, no matter how low she turned the volume. “Yeah, I made it. There’s no cell service at the ranch, so I didn’t get your texts until just now. I’m in town right now.”

The ranch. Wow.” Raven let out a low whistle. “I still can’t believe you’re doing this.”

“Me neither,” Clarke grumbled to herself. She still felt like all of this was some kind of dream (or maybe a nightmare, in the worst moments). “But things are going surprisingly OK, I guess. The ranch is good, even if the ranch owner is a bitch.”

“What’s her deal?” Raven asked with a yawn. “Sorry, still waking up.”

But Clarke was already running through all the reasons Lexa bothered her. “You should have been there when I first showed up. She was just so… hostile when we met. For no good reason, you know? I just drove literally a thousand miles, and she insulted me off the bat. And she’s always looking down on me for something. She told me I wouldn’t last a day out here. And she does this thing, where she’ll just stare at me, like I’m a complete idiot…”

The waitress walked by during her tirade and frowned at her. Maybe Clarke should be more careful with her words here, but she didn’t want to sugarcoat things to Raven.

“Yeah, she sounds lovely,” Raven said once Clarke lost her steam. “Good thing you only have to work for her for another year!”

“Ugh, don’t remind me,” Clarke groaned. “I don’t know how I’m going to make it.”

“But you will,” Raven assured her. “One way or another. Even if I have to come all the way out there and beat her ass.”

Clarke snorted to herself. “Thanks, Raven. But I think I can handle this.”

“Yeah, you’re Clarke fucking Griffin. Of course you can.” It sounded like Raven took a sip of coffee. “So what, is everything there a big ol’ western stereotype? Flannel, big belt buckles, hot cowboys, the works?”

“Lots of flannel,” Clarke said, looking at the other patrons in the diner. “But no hot cowboys,”

Unbidden, an image of a sharp jawline and thick lips came to Clarke’s mind. She realized with a start who it was and hated herself for it. She wasn’t even attracted to Lexa, obviously. Of course Lexa was beautiful, from a purely physical standpoint, but she was one of the coldest people that Clarke had ever met. That was not an attractive feature in her book.

Still, the line was silent for too long, and Clarke knew she was in trouble.

“Any hot… cowgirls?” Raven asked slyly.

Clarke rolled her eyes. “Why? Are you gonna come over here and seduce them?”

“Not if you’re already seducing them. That’s some serious competition.”

“And don’t you forget it,” Clarke said, with more humor than she felt. Talking about this just reminded her about what Finn had done to her, and why she had come out here in the first place. “But it doesn’t matter if there’s anyone cute out here. I’m done with anything but perfectly platonic relationships for a while. Consider this my cleanse. A year-long cleanse.”

Just as the waitress approached Clarke’s table with a smile, Raven snorted into the phone. “You, celibate for an entire year? You were going crazy freshmen year if you didn’t fuck someone new every week.”

The waitress’ smile dropped as she placed a plate of pancakes in front of Clarke, and Clarke realized that despite her volume being at its quietest, the waitress must have heard what Raven had said. “I was stressed out with exams and didn’t know how to deal with it, OK? And don’t slut shame me.”

“I’m not, trust me,” Raven said. “But all I’m saying is that maybe you shouldn’t hold yourself back if a certain cowboy or cowgirl catches your eye?”

“That’s not why I came out here, Raven, and you know it,” Clarke said. She even meant it.

“I know, I know.” Raven’s voice was conciliatory. “But I don’t want you to come visit a year from now and throw yourself at me because you’re a horndog.”

“Rude,” Clarke muttered, bringing her voice low so that the other patrons couldn’t hear her. “Just because I have a high sex drive doesn’t mean I don’t have standards.”

“Oh Clarke, don’t make me go through the long list of examples that refutes that point.” Raven paused. “If you want to be a lone wolf this next year, that’s your decision, and I support it. But if anything happens, just know I will show you no mercy and will laugh at you until I pass out.”

“That’s fair,” Clarke said, smiling into the phone despite herself.

“So…” Raven drawled. “This attractive cowgirl wouldn’t happen to be, oh I don’t know, your boss, now would she?”

“What?” Clarke practically choked on her sip of coffee. “Eww. Raven. I told you, she’s a complete bitch.”

“Yes, you did,” Raven responded, unconvinced.

Clarke wished that Raven could see how offended she was by this, just so this conversation would stop. “She didn’t even leave me any food in the house for breakfast this morning. Which, if you know me at all, is a very serious offense.”

“Hungry Clarke is a grumpy Clarke, I know.”

“So nothing is going to happen, Raven,” Clarke said emphatically.

Raven hummed thoughtfully for a moment. “Is she brunette?”

Clarke just sighed. “What does that have to do with anything?”

“Athletic build? Probably has tattoos?” Raven continued.

Clarke didn’t know if Lexa had any tattoos, but she imagined swirling black lines running down Lexa’s back, partially obscured by her long braid, and disappearing beneath the waistband of her--

She forced herself to stop, shaking her head slightly. “It doesn’t matter. She’s one of the most stuck-up, emotionless people I’ve ever met.”

“And she’s also your type,” Raven said smugly. “Physically, at least. I can’t wait until you guys do it later.”

“Did I mention she’s straight?” Clarke said. “Or at least, she probably is. She does own a lot of flannel, but everyone here does.”

“Uh huh. Well, just know that if you decide to make a habit of fucking your bosses, you have my support.”

Of course the waitress dropped by to refill her coffee at that exact moment. Clarke silently cursed Raven--and her cell phone. The waitress scurried away without making eye contact.

“OK, first of all Raven, that was one time,” Clarke sighed into the phone. “And second of all, now the waitress thinks I’m a complete skank thanks to you.”

Raven laughed into her ear. “I’m just trying to set the record straight. Pardon the pun.”

“Ha ha ha,” Clarke mocked, even as the smell of pancakes in front of her made her stomach grumble. “Listen, I almost can’t hear you over the sounds my stomach is making. And I think I’ve been ridiculed enough for one day, anyway.”

“Oh come on, Clarke. You know I do it because I love you! But sure, I don’t know what the fuck I’ll do now that I’m awake this early, but I’ll figure it out. Should I try to call you later? Or is chat better?”

“Chat, for sure,” Clarke said, as she poured syrup generously over her pancakes. “There’s internet on the ranch. It’s practically dial-up, but it’s better than nothing.”

“Cool. I’ll chat at you then. But definitely not at the ass crack of dawn again.”

“I’ll shoot for seven next time,” Clarke said with a grin.

“Nine, please. Let me live.”

Clarke laughed as she said goodbye and hit end call. Raven always knew how to make her feel better. Even if she had no idea what she was talking about when it came to Lexa. Clarke couldn’t even imagine what kissing Lexa would be like, let alone anything else.

(Lips, full and soft, moving slowly against her own, deliberately, deepening, Lexa’s tongue sliding across her lower lip--)

Clarke blinked in surprise. She didn’t know where that thought had come from. It was ridiculous, obviously. She didn’t want to kiss her boss. She barely wanted to talk to her boss. She blamed Raven for even suggesting that she liked Lexa like that.

Silence settled around the booth again. Conversations buzzed around the room, but Clarke sat alone, her only company the tall stack of pancakes and her cup of coffee. But she reminded herself that no company was better than the Ice Queen at the ranch, or her asshole ex-boyfriend back home.

Being alone was just what she needed.

She repeated that to herself as she ate her pancakes, as she picked up the vaccines from the general store, as she bought groceries and drove the truck over bumpy dirt roads back to the ranch (only stalling out twice).

She needed this time to find herself, to break free, to grow and learn. And she didn’t need anyone else to do that.



**********



The next week was a blur. Clarke had hoped that after calving, things might slow down and she wouldn’t have to wake up before dawn every day, but no such luck: all of the calves needed to be vaccinated and branded; the cows and bulls needed their boosters; they all needed to be dewormed and protected against fleas and ticks. But all of that was manageable, even if she collapsed into bed every night and fell asleep in two seconds flat.

The next task was less… fun.

Castration. The newborn male calves had to be castrated. By Clarke.

When Lexa had handed her what looked like gigantic nail clippers straight from hell, Clarke turned them in her hand with a growing sense of dread. “Is this some weird kink of yours?”

Lexa paused her check of the corral fencing in the pasture yard adjacent to the barn to cast Clarke a tired look. At least it was better than the glare she was used to. “Have you used a cattle bander before?”

Clarke wanted to say yes, of course she had used a bander. All the time. She was a cattle banding expert. But as she slowly came to the realization what the bander was for, she decided that messing this up would be far too messy.

“I’ve… never had the pleasure,” Clarke admitted, cringing at her choice of words. “That was the wrong way to put it.”

Clarke thought that Lexa would glare at her, accuse her of being uselessly inexperienced and complain about Anya hiring her again. But when Lexa just nodded and continued her inspection of the corral fence, Clarke was instantly suspicious. She tucked the bander into her jacket pocket and joined Lexa at the fence, pretending to know what she was looking for besides an obvious gap in the fence.

Clarke ran her bare hands along the fence, the frigid wind making her fingers tingle. “Is that going to be a problem?” she asked. “That I’ve never done it before.”

Lexa turned to her, facing her straight on with a searching look. The sudden scrutiny made Clarke want to fold her arms or fidget, but she kept her hands firmly on the fence.

“Two weeks ago, I would have said yes,” Lexa said, her face emotionless. “But now I know that you’re a fast learner and have an eye for detail. I don’t trust you on your own yet, but I think that if I show you how to do it, you can learn.

Clarke analyzed the compliments balanced by Lexa’s lack of trust in her. “You know, if that came from anyone else, I might be offended, but from you… I’ll take it.”

Maybe she imagined it, but Clarke thought she saw just a hint of a smile from Lexa. But all too quickly, it was gone, and Lexa was frowning again and pointing towards Clarke’s hands, which were turning red in the cold.

“You should really keep your hands in your pockets when you’re not working,” she said, as if that moment hadn’t passed between them at all. “Or buy some gloves.”

Clarke tucked her fingers into her skinny jeans pockets, but they were so shallow that they only covered the first two knuckles of her fingers. That fact didn’t escape Lexa’s attention, but her only response was a raised eyebrow before she returned to work.

Clarke wondered what it would take to make Lexa smile, really smile. What she had given her before, it had been small but… nice, in the sense that Lexa wasn’t berating her or making her feel completely inadequate. She realized that she hadn’t heard Lexa laugh yet since she had arrived at the ranch. But she supposed that Lexa hadn’t heard her laugh yet either.

But Clarke couldn’t finish that thought, because Lexa was done with her work on the fence, and it was time for Clarke to figure out yet again how the hell to be a ranch hand. Holding the cattle bander in both hands, Clarke gave it an experimental open and close.

She couldn’t help but feel very bad for these male calves.



**********



At dusk the next day, Clarke stumbled back to the cabin so tired that she wasn’t even sure if she could manage to eat dinner before passing out that night. Her work with the cattle bander had taken the last two days, and if Clarke didn’t have to look at another calf’s bits up close for the rest of her life, she would be happy..

Beside the barn, her car sat there as uselessly as ever with its flat tire, but the ranch’s work truck was nowhere to be seen. From what Clarke had seen so far, it was unusual for Lexa to leave the ranch that late at night, but in the end, Clarke was too tired to care. She only had the energy to drink a glass of milk before curling up in bed and falling fast asleep.

The next day, Clarke wasn’t awoken by the usual sounds of activity in the kitchen, but when she came out of her room, there were still the tell-tale signs that Lexa had made herself her usual eggs and toast. Lexa didn’t bother to be quiet in the morning, but either she had been silent today, or Clarke had been so tired that she had slept right through it.

But all of that faded from Clarke’s mind, when she saw the bundle wrapped up on the kitchen table with a thin rope, crosswise as if it were some country version of a Christmas present.

Clarke fumbled through untying the rope, her fingers clumsy in her half-state of sleep. She opened the box to reveal…

Clothes?

A six-pack of wool socks; wool sweaters, one thick and one thin; a long-sleeve, button-up cotton shirt that would not be out of place in any country bar; two flannel shirts, one with a fleece liner; jeans and thick working pants; a pair of sturdy boots; and the thickest jacket that Clarke had ever seen, complete with hood and enormous pockets. And placed on top of it all, were two sets of working gloves.

All of this must have cost a small fortune. Or at least, far more money than Clarke had in her bank account after four years of university.

She rushed back to her room to try everything on, and she didn’t think she had ever been more excited about functional clothing in all her life. To her complete surprise, everything fit perfectly, which was never an easy task given her curves.

Clarke sat on her bed in a new pair of jeans and a wool sweater. She remembered how Lexa had told her to put her hands in her pockets, and how she had frowned at Clarke’s skinny jeans. No one else could have bought her all of these things. But how had she known her size? And more crucially, why had she bothered doing this? As her employer, Lexa was under no obligation to buy her clothes and equipment that Clarke hadn’t been smart enough to bring on her own.

But here Clarke was, finally looking like she belonged on a ranch, and finally equipped to deal with whatever the elements would be throwing at her over the next year.

A small smile crept up on her face as she fit the pieces together. Lexa must have snuck out after a long day of work to do this for her. And then Lexa had intentionally made herself breakfast one thousand times quieter than she usually did, just so she didn’t have to be in the same room when Clarke found the bundle of clothes.

Clarke slipped on her new work boots and laced them up, her smile wider than it ever had been at this ungodly hour of the morning.

It was only because the clothes fit her so well, and she would be comfortable and warm all day.

It had nothing to do with the fact that maybe Lexa didn’t dislike her as much as she had thought.

Chapter Text

The wind was warm on her skin. All around her, stalks of grass fluttered in the breeze, and Lexa watched their bowing forms create waves that moved across the plains. The browning grass was peppered with the occasional wildflower, their pink and purple petals bright in the sunlight. All was calm, moving at nature’s slow pace, and although Lexa knew there were probably a million things she and Clarke should be doing, for some reason she couldn’t remember a single one.

Lexa wasn’t sure exactly where they were, which was how she knew this wasn’t real. She always knew where she was on the ranch, could always point back to the cabin as if there was a string connecting her to it.

But even though this was just a dream, it was a nice dream. She and Clarke had been wandering side-by-side for what felt like forever. They walked up one grassy slope and down the next, saying nothing to each other but not needing to. Sometimes Lexa would look over and see the sunshine transforming Clarke’s hair into a thousand speckles of light, or notice how the sky was reflected in Clarke’s eyes as she gazed upward. Lexa felt a soft touch on her hand and realized that Clarke had intertwined their fingers together. It was the most natural feeling in the world.

But Lexa felt the sunlight dim. The smell of moist earth and sweet flowers faded. She tried to cling onto the open sky and verdant hills and Clarke’s hand but no matter how much she fought, the softness of her sheets, the tangle of her hair atop her pillow, and the sliver of sunlight just peaking through her window broke slowly into her awareness.

With a tinge of disappointment, Lexa knew she was back in her own bed, but she swore she could still feel the sun warm on her cheeks and Clarke’s hand in her own. She closed her eyes and tried to remember it all… if only because it had been so tranquil, and Lexa needed more of that before she had to face the challenges of the day.

(It had nothing to do with how Clarke had held her hand.)

But even as Lexa tried to imagine herself back in the grassland, something was different. She took in a deep breath. Was that…

Bacon?

Lexa opened her eyes, squinting only slightly as the sun crested the horizon outside her window. The scent of cooking bacon was unmistakable now, and Lexa didn’t know how she had managed to ignore it for so long. She felt a dim pang of regret as the last remnant of the dream slipped away.

She sat straight up in bed with a jolt, realizing that this was the first time she would see Clarke since she had given her the package of clothing two days ago. She hadn’t been avoiding her, of course, but the day had been very busy… Lexa had met with her cattle buyer, who would be purchasing her calves at the end of the season; she had visited Anya’s office to discuss her financial plans, which were looking more stable; and she had even found herself dropping by Indra’s home as well to discuss how her business was doing. Once she had returned to the ranch, she immediately went out on horseback to check on the herd and stayed there for hours. In any case, she hadn’t had time to see Clarke.

(But she had not been avoiding her.)

Regardless, Lexa’s priority now was finding out who was cooking bacon in her kitchen. Anya was a vegetarian and refused to even look at meat (ironic, considering that most of her accounting clients were in the beef industry). Indra’s sense of protocol was too strict to allow her to ever drop by unannounced. And Clarke, based on the last two months of evidence, was barely able to cook macaroni and cheese out of a box.

So when Lexa stepped out of her room in her navy blue pajama pants and old T-shirt, she wasn’t prepared for the sight of Clarke standing in front of the stove, spatula in hand, flipping bacon in one pan and eggs in another.

Luckily, Clarke didn’t turn, which left Lexa the chance to rush into the bathroom and shut the door silently behind her. She bound her unruly hair up into a tight braid and stared at herself in the mirror until she thought she looked less tired. Until today, she had always been awake before Clarke. Lexa prided herself on being an early riser: it mean that she normally accomplished more by noon than most people did in their entire day. Having someone else in the cabin awake before her threw her off-balance. She liked appearing collected and in control at all times, but that was hard to do if her sleep-disheveled hair was sticking out in every direction.

When she was satisfactorily cleaned up, Lexa left the bathroom and sat down at the table, more heavily than she meant to, but she was tired and hungry.

“We have a lot of work to do today,” she said evenly to Clarke as way of greeting, choosing to ignore the fact that this was the first time Clarke had made something besides a bowl of cereal for breakfast.

Clarke looked over her shoulder at Lexa as she flipped slices of bacon. Lexa felt a drop in her stomach that she attributed to how hungry she was.

“And how is that different from any other day?” Clarke asked with much more humor than usual this early in the morning. Lexa wondered how long she had been awake.

Instead of her usual pajamas consisting of sweatpants and her college sweatshirt, Clarke wore the new pair of jeans and wool sweater that Lexa had bought her. They both fit her perfectly, but of course they did--Lexa had an eye for detail. Still, she was pleased to know that Clarke would finally have appropriate, well-fitting clothes to work in instead of her skinny jeans and paper-thin jacket.

“How do you like your bacon?” Clarke asked after Lexa hadn’t responded.

Lexa stared hard at her back, the offer taking her by surprise. “Is some of that for me?”

Clarke turned around only long enough for Lexa to see her roll her eyes. “What, do you think I would cook half a package of bacon just for myself? Now answer the question.”

Between the dream and this situation, today was already more full of surprises than Lexa would normally like. But somehow, she didn’t mind these surprises. “Crispy, almost burnt,” she admitted at last, not knowing why it felt like she was revealing a bigger part of herself than just a breakfast order.

Clarke worked in silence from then on, the smell of bacon, eggs, and coffee almost more than Lexa could handle. When Clarke placed a fresh cup of coffee and a plate piled high with food in front of her, Lexa had to consciously slow her actions, carefully pick up her fork, and slice one of the eggs in half. Yolk oozed across the plate, just how Lexa liked it. But Clarke hadn’t asked her about how she liked her eggs. She must have observed how Lexa had cooked herself breakfast over the past few weeks.

“So…” Clarke drawled, breaking the long silence between them. “I wanted to thank you for the clothes, and boots, and, you know, basically buying me everything I should have bought before I got here. I don’t know if one breakfast can do that, but I figured it was a good start. And I’ll pay you back for all of it when I have the money, of course.”

Lexa was trying to eat slowly, but it was hard to do so when this was probably the best breakfast she had eaten in years. Where had Clarke been hiding these cooking skills since she had arrived? “You don’t have to pay me back,” she said in between bites. “I had to buy it. It’s my obligation as your employer to make sure you have the right protective equipment for the job you’re performing.”

Even as intent as Lexa was on the rapidly disappearing bacon and eggs on her plate, she still noticed how Clarke’s smile dropped. “Well, still. Thanks. I owe you one.”

“Summer will be here before long,” Lexa said, already finishing off her plate. “You won’t need most of the gear until winter returns in a few months.”

Clarke stared at her long enough across the table that Lexa was beginning to wonder if she had food all over her face. “I think the phrase you’re searching for is ‘you’re welcome,” Clarke said with a hint of an edge.

Lexa swirled the last of her coffee in her cup and then shook her head. “There’s no need to say that if there’s nothing to thank. You’ll be a better worker if you’re protected from the elements.”

Clarke snorted a laugh to herself that Lexa thought could have been bitter. “Whatever you say, Lexa.” She glanced down at her plate. “Did you like your breakfast, or are you just trying to get away from me as fast as you can?”

Lexa looked up at her again, feeling the conversation slipping back into familiar territory. She didn’t know why Clarke felt so obligated to say thank you for something that Lexa really had had no choice about. But maybe it was the fact that Lexa didn’t want to seem unappreciative for the breakfast, or that she was more tired than she had thought, but Lexa heard herself say, “It was the best breakfast I’ve had since my mom was alive.”

As soon as she realized what she had said, Lexa froze. She hadn’t meant to share that with Clarke, not now. Not ever, really. But it was out, and Clarke was looking at her with bright blue eyes that shone even in the dim light of the kitchen. Lexa knew she should feel self-conscious about what she had just said, but for some reason, she didn’t.

“I’m glad you liked it,” Clarke said simply, returning to work on her remaining toast.

Lexa got on her feet. She knew something had passed between them, but she couldn’t quite grasp what it was. “I’ll do the dishes. You should prepare the horses. We need to check the fences before we move the cattle to a new pasture.”

Clarke couldn’t hold her gaze. “It’s… been a while since I was last on a horse. I could use a refresher.”

Lexa felt the old, familiar frustration toward Anya, that she had hired someone so inexperienced in almost all aspects of how to live and work on a ranch. But Lexa stifled those feelings--they didn’t help anyone, and besides, Clarke had shown herself to be more than capable with what Lexa had thrown at her so far. If she showed half the tenacity toward this as she had during calving season, then Lexa had nothing to worry about.

“I’ll be out there as soon as I’m done,” Lexa said, rolling up her sleeves and preparing the sink water.

Clarke grabbed her jacket and headed out, leaving Lexa in the empty cabin that was still full of her muddled thoughts. Because, even as most of her dream had already faded, the feeling of Clarke’s hand in her own was as vivid as ever.



**********



Clarke cooked most days after that, breakfast and dinner. Lexa hadn’t eaten so well in years, and she noted how her normally wiry muscles were losing some of their tone. But Lexa couldn’t care less: she felt healthier and stronger than ever.

During the spring, it had only been Lexa and Clarke in the kitchen on most days, fending for themselves and scraping together sorry excuses for meals that barely filled their bellies. But now, Lexa would pick up on the scent of cooking onions, or garlic, or steak, all the way out at the barn, and know that it was almost time to head back. It was more effective than one of those old dinner bells that her mom had used, back when Lexa and her dad had been out in the fields with the cattle.

Lexa knew it was impossible, but she swore that those scents must have traveled all the way to town, because Anya started showing up for dinner two or three times a week, “to check on her investments,” she insisted. Lexa had reason to doubt that, when Anya would head straight to the kitchen every time and ask Clarke what she was cooking that day. Even Indra, with her farm machinery repair shop and acres of hay fields over 30 miles away, picked up on the scent and dropped by the ranch at least once a week around dinner time. Indra had even started bringing a board game with her when she dropped by, so dinner and game nights were becoming a regular event. Lexa hadn’t known she had missed it, the sound of conversation and laughter in her home.

And she had Clarke to thank for it.

But she had a lot of things to thank Clarke for. The calves, cows, and bulls were healthier than Lexa could ever have hoped. But as the months passed, Clarke confused her more and more. Lexa was convinced that Clarke had absolutely no ranch experience before she had arrived at Woods Ranch, and yet….

She was good at it.

Clarke had been soft before, in more ways than one. Physically, Lexa had watched her strain while holding one of the young calves still, or while walking up and down the many hills that covered the ranch. But Clarke was getting stronger, more quickly than Lexa had thought possible. At first, Clarke had collapsed into bed each night and struggled to wake up each morning, but she seemed more energetic now with each passing day, even as the workload never seemed to lessen.

But it was the mental strengthening that fascinated Lexa the most. Lexa had seen right through Clarke’s confident act at first, which was why Lexa had been so furious at Anya for hiring her. But with each passing day, Clarke’s confidence--real confidence, built from performing the same tasks day in and day out--began to build. She saw Clarke beginning to do things without really even needing to think about them: tying a rope here, repairing fence there, noticing a calf limping from all the way across the pasture. Lexa hadn’t thought that Clarke’s soft hands would have been suited to this life, but she had been wrong.

But one thing did not come naturally, which brought Clarke no end of frustration: riding horses.

As Lexa had suspected, Clarke needed more than just a refresher. At the end of their first riding day, when Clarke had walked bowlegged across the yard and cursed nonstop under her breath, she had finally admitted that the last time she had ridden a horse was in elementary school. But still, Lexa took things slowly, trusting that Clarke would not give up until she had mastered it. Or at least, that’s what Clarke had done with every other task on the ranch.

On this one… Lexa was really trying not to doubt her. She had doubted Clarke before, and that had proven foolish. But it was hard not to when Clarke almost fell off the back of the horse when he unexpectedly started to lope, or when Clarke’s feet were so far forward in the stirrups that she looked like she was sitting in a recliner, or when her horse simply refused to move at all.

But despite these setbacks, Lexa couldn’t deny that Clarke was getting better. She practiced riding every opportunity she got, often saddling up after dinner and riding around the yard until it was so dark that Lexa could barely see her from the cabin window. Over time, Clarke’s posture improved, her muscles strengthened, her confidence in commands and leading the horse grew, even if sometimes a look of panic so intense crossed Clarke’s face that Lexa had to turn away to hide her amusement. Clarke needed a patient teacher right now, not someone who laughed at her mistakes.

(Not that that stopped Lexa from re-enacting Clarke’s saddle-sore walk to Anya next time she showed up to the ranch for dinner. Unfortunately, Clarke turned from chopping vegetables at just the wrong time to see the display. The way she gestured the knife toward them was meant to be menacing, but it only had Lexa and Anya laughing even harder.)

So when Clarke wanted to go out with her to repair fencing and corral cattle--on horseback--Lexa was hesitant. But Clarke jutted out her jaw, crossed her arms, and raised her eyebrow so convincingly that Lexa couldn’t say no. If Clarke wouldn’t be able to walk the next day, Lexa felt like she wouldn’t even need to waste the breath to say “I told you so.”

But Clarke made the hours-long ride through the pastures without a hitch. The grass was already tickling at their feet as they rode, taking full advantage of the warming weather and abundant sunshine of early summer. Thunderstorms had rolled through a couple of days before, providing the rain the grass needed to shoot up and provide excellent feed for the cattle.

After a long ascent, they reached the highest point on the ranch, nestled at the foot of hills that were still capped in snow. Below them, the pastures rolled on and on, a brilliant green of rebirth against the puffy clouds moving lazily across the sky.

Clarke turned her horse in a slow circle, and Lexa felt pride swell inside her, remembering when she had taught her how to do that the previous week. Clarke took in the sight below them, awe sketched across her face.

“Wow…” Clarke said, barely loud enough for Lexa to hear over the constant breeze that blew on the high plains. “It goes on forever, doesn’t it?”

Lexa had already memorized the view from this hilltop years ago, but it always brought her satisfaction to know that all of this was hers. “Woods Ranch continues all the way to that stand of trees to the north, the road to the south, and the cabin to the east.”

“It’s beautiful. These cows are pretty lucky to have all of this.” Clarke glanced over to Lexa then. “And I guess we’re pretty lucky, too.”

Lexa was surprised at the flutter in her chest that Clarke’s comment caused. It was such a simple statement. Of course it was beautiful out here. But the way that Clarke lumped herself and Lexa together, that casual familiarity, that they were in this together… Even though Clarke still frustrated her sometimes, there was no doubt in Lexa’s mind that she had never had a ranch hand quite like her before.

But nearby, outside of the ranch, a hunter’s rifle sounded and all hell broke loose.

Lexa instinctively clutched her thighs around her horse’s flanks, as the horse reared up on her back legs. Fingers gripping the mane and reins tightly, Lexa could only hold on for dear life as the powerful animal beneath her began galloping down the slope. She barely registered Clarke screaming her name, but she was already so far away that the sound was almost lost in the wind roaring in her ears.

Her instincts kicked in. Lexa fell into the rhythm of the gallop, squeezing and relaxing her muscles in time with the horse’s movements, trying her best not to be thrown off the horse or fall beneath the galloping hooves. Gradually, she knew that the immediate danger was over, but there was no slowing the horse down, either. After that rifle shot, her horse was spooked and intent to get as far away from that sound as she could. All of Lexa’s cues--her steady voice, light pulls on the reins, sitting deep in the saddle--were being ignored in the horse’s urgency to escape the threat.

So when Lexa saw a flash of gold in the sun, followed by an equally fast, equally dangerous horse and rider careening toward them from the side, Lexa had more than enough reason to  brace for impact. But Clarke, her own horse galloping beneath her, headed them off perfectly, bringing them both to such an abrupt halt that Lexa had to clasp around the horse’s neck to prevent flying forward.

The only sound for a long time was their ragged breathing.

Lexa wiped the sweat from her eyes and stared in disbelief at Clarke. It had happened so fast, that she wasn’t sure if she hadn’t imagined it all. “How did you… How did you do that? I never even taught you how to gallop.”

“Fast learner, remember?” Clarke replied with what Lexa swore was a wink, but she was still too in shock to really know for sure.

But Lexa couldn’t wrap her mind around it. “I wouldn’t even expect an experienced rider to be able to do that, Clarke. I don’t know if I could do that.”

Clarke circled her horse away from her, but Lexa thought she had seen Clarke’s cheeks reddening. “All you have to say is ‘thanks,’ you know. But you’re not very good at that.”

“Thank you.”

Clarke spun the horse around again, facing her directly. Lexa hadn’t imagined her blush, though now her expression was more one of surprise.

“Thank you, Clarke.” Lexa repeated, noting Clarke’s lips had parted slightly. She was still shocked, Lexa thought, and not just from Lexa expressing her gratitude. Lexa guessed that Clarke was just as surprised that she was able to stop Lexa’s horse as she was. “You saved me from a fall, or worse, and risked her own life in the process. Thank you.”

“Now that you’ve started saying it, you just won’t stop,” Clarke said, but not in a mean way. It almost sounded… fond? Lexa didn’t know, but it was a nice change.

“Are you OK, though?” Clarke continued, looking her up and down.

Lexa studied her as well, but couldn’t find any obvious injuries on Clarke. “I should be asking you that.”

“I’ll take that as a yes, then.” Clarke looked over her shoulder. “What was that gunshot, though?”

Lexa soothed her horse, even as another shot rang out. Luckily, this time her horse didn’t spook.  “The rancher on the next property over was probably hunting wolves. They’re becoming more common around here and sometimes kill calves or weak cattle in the herd.”

“You don’t carry a gun with you around the ranch, though, do you?” Clarke asked.

“No.” Lexa started walking her horse away from the fence line. She didn’t want to risk spooking her horse again if she didn’t have to. “I try to my best to coexist with the wolves. I haven’t needed to shoot any yet.”

Clarke nodded. “I respect that.”

They rode in silence for a time, but Clarke turned to her with a furrowed brow. “So we’re just going to keep going today and pretend that you didn’t almost get thrown off your horse and trampled?”

Lexa just shrugged. “What else is there to do?”

Clarke laughed to herself, and it was just as welcome a sound as the birds returning to the grasslands in spring with their songs and calls. “It’s just…. I think I would have shat my pants, if I were you.”

“Then for all our sakes, I hope your horse never spooks like mine did,” Lexa joked.

She was rewarded with another laugh, and Lexa smiled too. She could really get used to that sound.



**********



They spent most of their time around the pastures on horseback after that. The calves were putting on an astounding amount of weight with the favorable summer weather: a steady stream of thunderstorms were bringing enough moisture to make the grass grow thick and tall. Still, they needed to keep the cattle moving around the ranch, and she and Clarke were getting much more efficient in corralling together.

Lexa told herself to keep her expectations low, to not expect Clarke to master this skill like she had all of the others before, but Clarke once again showed that if she set her mind to something, she would achieve it.

Lexa had never seen anything like it, or anyone like her. Clarke seemed to have some kind of intuitive grasp of how to manage the cattle. Based on the last three months, Lexa could tell that Clarke was made for the ranch, same as her. But when Lexa told her that, Clarke didn’t react as favorably as she had hoped.

“What? Like it’s hard?” Clarke said with a hint of sarcasm, saddling her horse in the barn alongside Lexa. She looked like she had been doing this all her life, and it drove Lexa mad that Clarke couldn’t see how incredible that was.

“Clarke, you saved a backwards calf on your first day here, even though you had never done it before. That’s extraordinary.” Lexa felt strange, praising anyone so openly like that, but it was the truth, and she needed Clarke to realize it.

But Clarke just waved her hand at her in dismissal. “I’d watched a video about it like, three times. It’s not that complicated”

“To you, maybe.” Lexa cinched the saddle tight on her horse. “We hired summer help a couple of years ago. He threw up when he saw his first birth, and he couldn’t even be in the barn while we were castrating calves.”

“Men are weird like that,” Clarke admitted, adjusting the saddle one last time and giving the reins a final look-over. Everything was perfect, from what Lexa could see. “And listen, while I appreciate that you think I’m awesome and that you won’t be firing me anytime soon, you really don’t have to tell me how great I am all the time.”

Clarke stepped onto the stirrup and propelled herself onto the saddle, effortlessly. Lexa thought back to her first day on a horse and almost laughed aloud at the difference. Even if Clarke refused to acknowledge how far she had come in just a few short months, Lexa knew that she was special.

Lexa mounted onto her own horse, and they walked them out of the barn and into the soft morning light. The sun had just risen over the horizon less than an hour before, but it was already starting to warm up. With summer in full swing, they only needed jackets for morning and evening now.

“I’m only telling you this to let you know that if you want it, you have a future in the ranch industry,” Lexa insisted. She could never tell if Clarke was taking her seriously or not, and this was one time where she needed Clarke to know how important this was.

Clarke looked over to her, frowning. “Are you telling me you want me to stay on your ranch?”

Lexa looked at her in surprise. “What? No.”

Lexa really hadn’t meant that at all, and it was far too soon to make such an invitation anyway. Clarke had done extremely well over this season so far, but she reminded herself that it had only been a few months. Clarke still had another eight months on her contract, and a lot could happen. But the hurt look on Clarke’s face told her that she should rephrase.

“Whether this ranch, or a different one,” Lexa began, “I think that you could be a successful ranch hand, or even a ranch owner, if that’s what you wanted. Based on what I’ve seen, you have a gift for it.”

“Yes… maybe I’ll open a rival ranch and compete with you,” Clarke said airily, and Lexa knew that their serious discussion was over, as far as Clarke was concerned. “I’ll buy up all the surrounding ranches and raise cattle that are healthier, happier, and most importantly, cuter than your cattle. It’s the cuteness that makes them taste good, you know.”

Before Lexa could even think about responding, Clarke clicked to her horse and started loping, edging down the grassy hill and into the sunrise. Lexa smiled to herself, wanting to do nothing else on a Tuesday morning than to ride across the plains with someone who was her match.



**********



“They’re… uh… really going at it, aren’t they,” Clarke said with some measure of disgust.

Lexa looked up from the lasso she was hooking onto the pommel of her saddle. “That’s the point.”

They had released three bulls into the herd five days ago, and they would leave them there for another forty days before putting them back into isolation on the other side of the ranch. Giving them such a short window to mate encouraged the bulls to get the job done as quickly as possible but also ensured that they had a chance to mate with every cow in the herd. Cattle raising was a science, even if most people didn’t understand that.

“But I mean… wow.” Clarke approached the enclosure, eyes wide. “I feel like there should be a subscription service for this or something. Not that I’m into it, but I’m sure somebody is, you know?”

“That’s disgusting, Clarke.”

“I know, I know,” Clarke trailed off. “Still, it’s sad when a bunch of cows get more action than I do.”

Lexa knew that Clarke was joking, but she still bristled slightly. She picked at a chunk of leather that was threatening to come off of her saddle, the same saddle she had been using for that last ten years at least. “You can go to town for that sort of thing,” she said vaguely. She wasn’t even sure why she said it.

“For sex?” Clarke asked point-blank. Sometimes, she could be incredibly blunt. “Are you talking about a brothel or something?”

Lexa sighed, already regretting this conversation. She shouldn’t have said anything. “That’s not what I was suggesting. I was thinking more traditional methods, like meeting someone at the bar.”

Clarke laughed at her. “No offense, but that bar in Polis looks a little too sketchy for me.”

Lexa felt the piece of leather she had been picking at come undone from the saddle in her fingers, and she flicked it into the ankle-high grass. Her hands needed to keep moving, though, so she knelt down and began inspecting the fence (even though they had inspected it just a few days before). It bothered her that there wasn’t anything wrong with it that she could fix.

“The bar isn’t that bad,” Lexa insisted, even though she wished this topic was already over. If Clarke was feeling… unfulfilled on the ranch, then, as her employer, Lexa needed to help her think of solutions, even if she found them distasteful. “I know the owner. It may look rough on the outside, but he keeps it clean on the inside. And…” Lexa hesitated but continued in an even tone. “It would be easy for you. All you’d have to do is walk in. I’m sure men would be falling over themselves to buy you a drink.”

There were some good men in the town, Lexa knew, but there were also a lot of entitled fools. Men who had grown up on farms and ranches and felt like they knew everything, even if they couldn’t tell the difference between a Senepol and a Salers.

Clarke knelt beside her then, and Lexa found herself trying even harder to find some kind of flaw she could fix in the fence. It had nothing to do with how Clarke’s hair was falling over her shoulder, or how the jeans that Lexa had bought her perfectly accentuated her legs when she was kneeling like that. Lexa just knew that she would rather not be talking about Clarke hooking up with some random man in town.

“The men will be lining up, huh?” Clarke rocked back onto her heels. “Either there’s not a lot of competition in this town, or you just think I’m pretty.”

Lexas sighed, finally giving in and glancing over to Clarke, only to be met by the smuggest grin she had ever seen. She knocked her shoulder into Clarke’s and was happy to see that she lost her balance, if only briefly.

“Don’t read into things, Clarke,” she said, willing her expression to be as neutral as possible. “It was a hypothetical situation.”

“Right.” Clarke laughed at her, not maliciously, and she turned thoughtful a moment later. “But it doesn’t matter anyway. I’m taking a break for a while.”

“Taking a break?” Lexa asked, genuinely curious. She and Clarke hadn’t talked about anything like this before, and Lexa was beginning to realize how little of Clarke’ past she knew.

“From sex,” Clarke admitted. “I… went a little crazy after my last break up. Slept around a lot. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I was doing it as a coping mechanism. It turns out that being angry at your ex isn’t a great reason to sleep with somebody.”

Lexa processed that information for a long moment. “Was coming to the ranch also a coping mechanism?”

“Yes and no,” Clarke admitted, sighing. She stood and leaned her back against the fence, facing away from the herd and looking out over the empty pastures around them. “It played a part, definitely, but there were a lot of reasons to get out for a while. Don’t you ever just need to escape? Go on a long vacation?”

“No,” Lexa said simply, standing beside Clarke. She really didn’t need vacations. She hadn’t taken one since she and her dad had gone on a road trip for a week when she was in high school. It was one of her favorite memories, but she thought it was mostly because of her dad. “I belong here. If you truly belong somewhere, you don’t feel like you need to leave.”

Clarke paused for a long moment, thinking it over. “What about when you’re stressed, or need to unwind? What do you do?”

Lexa shrugged under the scrutiny, keeping her eyes on the horizon. “I watch the sunset. Or listen to the wind rustling through the grass. Maybe pour myself some whiskey.”

“Whiskey, huh? I’m not surprised.” Clarke smiled over at her in such a way that Lexa felt her ears burning.

But Clarke’s smile faded, and Lexa didn’t think she imagined a slight hunching in her shoulders. “The ghost in my past was named Finn,” Clarke said flatly. “Who was yours?”

Lexa’s mind raced, trying to figure out how Clarke could have known about her, what little secret she had revealed accidentally. “What do you mean, my ghost?”

“Oh come on, Lexa.” Clarke shot her a stern look. “My ghost was dating another girl at the time, even though we had agreed to be monogamous. He assured the both of us that we were the only girl for him… but then I walked in on him with the other girl. So I’m wondering, what’s your story of woe? You stare more wistfully at the stars than anyone I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Lexa shifted against the fence, suddenly unsure of whether it was safe to be talking to Clarke about all of this after all. Granted, Clarke was from the city, and people’s views there were generally more progressive than they were in the country, but what did Lexa really know about her except that she had voluntarily left everything behind to work at her ranch?

But when Lexa looked over to her, she didn’t see a bigot, or a fanatic, or a cruel manipulator who would hold her secrets against her in a small town where word of mouth was faster than any news channel. If Lexa knew anything about Clarke after working by her side for the last four months, it was that she wouldn’t hurt her.

Lexa decided all at once. “Her name was Costia.”

A slight raising of the eyebrows was the only sign of Clarke’s surprise, for which Lexa was grateful. The only people in town who knew about it were Anya and Indra, and Lexa wanted to keep it that way.

Lexa kept her gaze over the fields, even though she wasn’t really looking at anything. “Costia and I had known each other our whole lives. Went to school together. Dated, secretly, for two years and five months.” Lexa stopped herself from going into more detail. But it was so refreshing to be able to talk about her, to tell the truth about her. “But she didn’t belong here. She was always dreaming of the outside world, of making it big in New York, of backpacking in Europe, of swimming with dolphins and climbing mountains and exploring temples… So she left.”

“Where is she now?” Clarke asked softly.

“I don’t know,” Lexa admitted with a small shake of her head. “Costia left the week after we graduated high school and hasn’t been back since. She never called or emailed. But there hasn’t been anyone since her.”

Clarke turned to her quickly, eyes wide. “You haven’t dated or… anything since high school? That was what, six years ago?”

“Seven,” Lexa said. “She left seven years ago.”

“I’m sorry,” Clarke said, even though Lexa didn’t know what she should be sorry for. “She must have been really special.”

“She was everything to me.” Lexa said flatly. It had been a long time ago, after all, even if the pain never faded completely. “But I respect her choice of leaving. She wouldn’t have been happy here.”

Clarke nodded as the silence lengthened, but her brow furrowed. “Sorry, but… and you don’t have to answer this if you don’t want to… but how can you go seven years without dating someone or… having sex?”

Lexa didn’t really understand her confusion. “If I don’t love someone, then what’s the point of being sexual or romantic with them? But more than that, why would I want anything like that with them?”

“Probably because it feels really fucking good,” Clarke said, sighing and looking out over the grassland. “But I get it, in theory. And I guess I’m making the same choice, but for different reasons. I just need to focus on other things in my life and not use sex as a way to try to get away from my problems. You know?”

“In theory,” Lexa replied, feeling the smallest of smiles creeping up on her despite none of their subject matter being particularly funny. But it was nice to be able to share this with Clarke. She made an effort and listened to her, and Lexa hoped that she was able to offer the same kind of comfort to Clarke, even if Lexa didn’t understand exactly what she was going through, either.

But through it all, the nagging feeling that Lexa had overshared crept up within her. Why would she tell a temporary hire about Costia? It wasn’t like she and Clarke were friends… or anything else, for that matter.

“We should get back,” Lexa announced as she pushed off of the fencing and took her horse’s reins. She needed time to think about this. And she couldn’t think at all, if Clarke was looking at her like she was just then. “I’d like to go over the latest weigh-ins and see if we’re on track for the calf market in October.”

Clarke looked like she was about to say something but eventually just took her own horse’s reins and followed along behind Lexa.

Not for the first time, Lexa wondered if she and Clarke had crossed a line. The package, the game and dinner nights, the dream, and now sharing about Costia… If there had been a line, Lexa was beginning to think she had crossed it weeks ago. But if they had crossed it, Lexa had to decide if she cared.



**********



She didn’t.

Or at least, that’s what the evidence was pointing toward. Because every time that Lexa noticed a line, and saw herself about to careen over it, she did nothing to stop herself. She, the master of self control and knowing what she wanted and how to get there, was being reduced to an impulsive, giddy lunatic who might as well get a carpe diem tattoo.

They were firmly into summer now, with the long days allowing them to stay out in the pastures longer. The calves were growing faster than Lexa had ever seen, a combination of above-average rainfall and Clarke’s constant attention to their health. But Lexa couldn’t help but notice that she payed special attention to one calf in particular.

“What’s wrong with her?” Lexa asked, watching Clarke kneel beside the young calf, which was already as tall as Clarke’s waist and strong enough to knock her over if she wanted to. But despite how strong the calf was becoming, Clarke just scratched behind her ear and elicited what Lexa could only describe as the cattle equivalent of a purr.

“The real question is, what’s wrong with you for thinking something’s wrong with her? She’s perfect,” Clarke said, scrunching her face at the calf in affection. “Look at her fur! Look at how thick it is!”

“Clarke, they all have thick fur. They’re Galloways.”

Clarke shot her a look as if she were daft. “But hers is especially thick. It’s like the softest blanket I’ve ever touched in my life. And this lucky punk gets to walk around in it all the time.”

“During the summer,” Lexa deadpanned. “Lucky her.”

But Clarke either chose to ignore her sarcasm or didn’t notice it. “I’ve named her Daenerys,” Clarke announced, clearly proud of herself.

Lexa stared at her, unbelieving. Why would anyone name a calf that they would be selling for beef in a few months? “Daenerys,” Lexa repeated to herself. It sounded familiar. “Is that the one with the dragons?”

Clarke laughed a little. “Yes. She’s only, like, the most well-known character on TV right now.” She smiled down at the calf and nuzzled her ear again. “And while she may not be the mother of dragons, at least she’ll be the mother of cattle.”

Lexa frowned. “We’re selling her in a few months. For food.”

Clarke covered the calf’s ears with her hands. “Don’t listen to that mean old woman. She doesn’t know what’s going on.”

Lexa knew that Clarke would regret naming the calf as soon as they were selling all of them to the feedlot. But Lexa didn’t have it in her to drive that point home any further, not when this one calf--this one, stupid calf that looked exactly the same as all the others but Clarke could still pick out of the entire herd in less than a second--brought her so much joy.

If that one calf made Clarke happy, Lexa wouldn’t fight her about it. Because, even though Lexa wouldn’t say it aloud, it was important to her that Clarke was happy.

(And maybe she was reaching, but she thought that Clarke was happy being on the ranch with her.)



**********



The landline rang. After Lexa had gotten internet installed on the cabin a few years ago, she had used the phone less and less, to the point that it was unusual to get a phone call. And now, it was past sunset, and Lexa was almost ready to call it a night after being out in the pastures all day with Clarke, but someone was calling the ranch.

Lexa stood from the dining room table, where she was having a cup of tea and reviewing her budget for the summer (it was tight, but as long as they didn’t lose any calves, they should be fine), and crossed into the kitchen to pick up the phone.

“Hello?”

“Hey! It’s Raven. I hope I have the right house, otherwise this is really awkward. Is Clarke there?”

The name jogged Lexa’s memory. “Raven… you’re Clarke’s friend.”

“Uh, yeah. Clarke’s best friend.” The woman’s tone somehow became simultaneously more playful and dangerous. “And you must be Lexa.”

As curious as she was about what kind of person Clarke would become friends with, Lexa felt like it might be better to avoid this conversation until later (when she had more intel on Raven, specifically). She placed the phone on the table but could still hear Raven on the other line.

“Are you there? Lexa? I’ve heard so much about you…”

But Lexa was already leaving the kitchen and searching the cabin for Clarke. It didn’t take long to discover that Clarke was in the shower.

“Clarke! Raven’s on the phone for you,” Lexa yelled through the door, loud enough to be heard over the sound of the running water.

“Oh my God, Raven!” And then, slightly panicked, “She hasn’t talked to you, has she?”  

Lexa heard a commotion through the door, and a few moments later, Clarke came bursting out of the bathroom, wrapped only in…

Lexa averted her eyes, but too late to avoid seeing everything that the towel didn’t cover, which was a lot. She knew that Clarke was well-endowed, based on the fitted sweaters and shirts that she wore, but detecting the slightest hint of something through a sweater and seeing it practically bursting from beneath a towel were two very different things.

Luckily, Clarke was in such a hurry to get to the phone that she didn’t look up to see Lexa’s burning cheeks, or the way her legs instantly turned to jelly, or how she practically ran to her room and nearly shut the door behind her.

With her room opening onto the kitchen, and Clarke speaking much more loudly than necessary, it wasn’t difficult for Lexa to overhear the conversation.

“Raven! What’s going on? I thought you were only going to call me if it was an emergency--”

Clarke must have been cut off, as she lingered in silence for a while.

“No, I haven’t had a chance to check yet. We’ve been out all day. What’s going on?”

Clarke was silent for a long time, to the point where Lexa almost wondered if she had hung up on Raven or vice versa.

“OK, yeah, I’ll call her tomorrow. I’m going into town in the morning and will have service. Listen, I’m sorry my mom came after you like that. It’s not fair that she got on your case for me not telling her where I was going. I’ll deal with her, OK?” A long pause. “Yeah, sorry, it’s been so busy around here. But I’m actually pretty good at this whole ranch thing. Raven… Raven . Stop laughing.”

Lexa could imagine Clarke’s smile as she said that. Whatever problems were happening with her mom, it seemed that Clarke still wanted to be on the ranch. That was good news.

(For the business, of course.)

Clarke laughed so hard that Lexa couldn’t help but smile herself. “Fuck off, Raven. Oh, I finally named my favorite calf… Daenerys. Yes… I know! She’s going to be such a badass. But for now she’s just an adorable ball of fur. I’ll send you some pictures I took today.”

Lexa realized it was ridiculous that she was sitting on her bed, her ear angled toward the crack in the door, listening to her employee’s conversation with her best friend back home. But she couldn’t help but enjoy hearing about what Clarke considered to be the highlights of her time at the ranch. The fact that she even had favorite experiences was enough to put Lexa at ease.

“Yeah,” Clarke said, voice quieting. “I know what I said about her before, but she’s not like that anymore.”

That really got Lexa’s attention. She rose from her bed and stood next to the wall near the door, convincing herself that it wasn’t as desperate as it looked.

“No, we’ve spent a lot of time together over the past few months. She got on my case a lot at first, but now… she’s kinda funny. And really passionate about her ranch. Like, I’ve never seen someone care so much about anything.”

That was a decent review. Lexa had never been lauded for her good humor before, but it brought her some satisfaction that Clarke thought she was funny.

Clarke spoke again a minute later. “God, no. I came here to get away from all that, you know that. It’s just… you know, if I have to spend all day with someone, I might as well not hate their guts.”

Another pause, then Clarke laughed. “That’ll happen when hell freezes over. Don’t worry, I’ll get my mom off your back. Alright, have fun at the party tonight. OK, love you too. Bye.”

Lexa frowned. She hadn’t known that Clarke was keeping her job at the ranch a secret from her mom. That seemed messy and could only lead to trouble down the road. She counted to ten before she stepped out of her room, keeping her eyes firmly above shoulder height when she sat across from Clarke at the dining room table.

(She so intently didn’t look at her chest that she swore she could see it all the more clearly.)

Clarke looked at her in surprise. “Oh. I thought you had gone outside.”

“So your mom doesn’t know you’re here?” Lexa asked, holding her cup of tea between her hands and willing her breathing to be calm.

Clarke winced, her shoulders sagging. “So you did hear everything I said.”

Lexa couldn’t help herself. “You also said I was funny,” she said with no emotion.

Clarke rolled her eyes, but that didn’t hide her slight smile. “Look, you already know that I wanted to get away from some stuff at home for a while, and my mom was part of that.”

But Lexa straightened her back and pinned her with her stare. She knew how effective it could be. “I need to know if my employees are having problems that could affect them on the job.”

Clarke’s looked like she was about to argue back, but finally she just sighed. “You got anything stronger than tea?”

And that’s how Clarke began telling her about her mother over whiskey (thankfully after returning to her room and changing into actual clothes). It was Lexa’s go-to whiskey--she had been buying the same brand since she had turned 21. Anya always said it tasted awful, but that just meant there was more for Lexa.

Sitting at the kitchen table, Clarke described her mother as controlling and manipulative, pressuring her to use her degree in biomedical science to pursue an MD like she had done. But when Clarke displayed more interest in animals than people and decided to follow that passion instead, Clarke never heard the end of why her mom thought that was a mistake. More critically, at least for the short term, her mother had cut her off financially when Clarke started taking more veterinary electives. That was another reason she had to leave: to clear her head, escape from her mother’s thumb…. and make some money.

At some point, they had headed outside to the porch swing, glasses refilled with whiskey. It was late, and Lexa knew she was usually in bed an hour ago, but this felt too important to let drop. She could lose a little sleep over making sure Clarke was alright.

(Because that’s what employers did: take care of their employees.)

“Honestly, I wish I could be more like you,” Clarke said, breaking the silence and making the fine hairs on Lexa’s arms and the back of her neck stand on end.

“What do you mean?” Lexa asked, trying to cover her shock. Why would Clarke be jealous of her? Even though Lexa still didn’t know much about her, she did know that Clarke was a college graduate and had the means to pick up her life and try something new at the drop of a hat.

But Clarke just raised her eyebrows at her, like it should be obvious. “You run your own business, Lexa. You own a house. You own like.. thousands of acres of land. So much land that I don’t even really know how much.” Clarke took a long swig of whiskey. “To put things in perspective, I am over $20,000 in debt and own nothing except my car and a shitty laptop.”

Lexa shot her a sidelong glance. “And your car has a flat tire.”

Clarke growled and picked up one of the cushions on her seat, throwing it point-blank at Lexa. Lexa deflected it with an arm, sending it flying behind her on the porch.

Clarke just glared at her, although Lexa could tell there was no fire in it. “I’m trying to tell you I admire you, Lexa! Learn how to take a compliment. Jesus.”

“I don’t get a lot of practice these days,” Lexa said with a self-conscious shrug.

Clarke grunted a laugh. “That’s hard to believe.”

It took Lexa a moment to realize the veiled flattery there. But as much as Lexa wanted to know what Clarke meant by that, she thought there should be a limit to their somewhat tipsy talk on the porch. Discussing Lexa’s supposed attractiveness with her employee was off limits.

Obviously.

(But why would Clarke even say something like that? What was the point?)

The quiet stretched between them. Beyond them in the fields, the insects were coming alive, filling the crisp night air with their chirps.

Eventually, Lexa cleared her throat. “You should know that you’re not as unsuccessful as you think you are.”

Clarke laughed but without humor. She downed the rest of her whiskey in one go. “You really are hilarious.”

“No, I’m being serious, Clarke” Lexa said, turning toward her on the swing. Even in the dark, she could see the crooked set of Clarke’s mouth. “You have freedom to go wherever you want and do whatever you want. You were strong enough to leave behind everyone you knew to come here. You’re building a life for yourself, the life that you want and not the one that your parents chose for you.”

Lexa stopped herself. She realized that Clarke was staring at her, and she wondered if she had already said too much. Maybe it was just the starlight, but she thought Clarke looked paler than usual.

But eventually, Clarke let out a breath and gave her a small smile. “I guess it’s good to take a step back and look at all the good things every once in awhile.”

“But not too often,” Lexa said with faux seriousness. “I don’t want us to get too cocky.”

“Too late for some of us…” Clarke said under her breath, before breaking out into a grin as Lexa gaped at her.

But Lexa was fast. She grabbed the cushion that Clarke had thrown at her earlier and chucked it back at her. She got Clarke right in the chest, and Clarke burst out laughing.

And Lexa found herself laughing along.



**********



Disaster struck. Or at least, that’s what Clarke would have her believe.

Daenerys was missing.

Lexa tried to ignore the flutter in her stomach when she saw how absurdly worried Clarke was. “Just slow down, Clarke. How do you know she’s missing?”

“I’ve counted the herd three times.” Clarke was searching through the cattle in their enclosure “She’s not here. Her mom has been crying all day.”

Lexa ignored the fact that cattle don’t cry. But besides Clarke’s panic, there was another reason to worry: the ranch couldn’t afford losing a calf right now. “Let me count them one more time, then we’ll decide what to do.”

As Lexa entered into the pasture and counted the cattle one by one, Clarke remained outside of the fence and was practically chewing on her fist. Lexa needed to be able to tell her that everything was alright, that she was just tired and miscounted those times before, but Lexa came to the end of the herd and sighed.

There really was one missing.

Lexa prided herself on her stony expression, but it evidently wasn’t stony enough to fool Clarke. She held her hand in front of her face, and Lexa had never seen her more anxious, even during Clarke’s first calving… and the first calf she had helped be born was Daenerys.

“Lexa, we have to find her.” A furrow had taken up permanent residence between Clarke’s brows, and Lexa wanted to make it disappear. “We have to go right now, we have to…”

Standing in front of Clarke again, Lexa quelled the voice that warned her about crossing lines, as she placed her hands on Clarke’s shoulders. They were quivering ever so slightly. “We’re going to find her, Clarke. But we need supplies first.”

“But she must be close,” Clarke insisted, worry coming off of her in waves. “We counted them yesterday, and she was still here. If we start now--”

“No, Clarke.” Lexa squeezed Clarke’s shoulders, and it seemed to ground her. Clarke was suddenly looking very intently into her eyes, and Lexa had to fight the urge to step back… or to step closer. “We’ll need extra food, water, shelter, and medical supplies if she’s hurt. We can’t rush into this.”

Clarke nodded, calming down. She took a deep breath and let it out. “OK. But if you think we’re walking the horses back to the barn, you have another thing coming.”

And sure enough, they loped all the way back to the cabin, loaded up enough supplies to keep them reasonably comfortable for a few days, and loped right back out to the pastures surrounding the rest of the herd. Even Lexa was sore after that, despite her years of experience in the saddle. She couldn’t imagine how much Clarke must be hurting, but Clarke didn’t say a word, and if anything, she rode faster as the hours wore on.

But after an endless day of searching and calling and riding up one hill and down another, Lexa led her horse to a stand of trees alongside a stream.

“Clarke, we need to stop,” Lexa said, dismounting. “There’s no use in searching if we can’t see.”

Clarke opened her mouth as if to protest, but she eventually nodded and joined Lexa on the ground a moment later.

The shadows were lengthening, plunging the grassland into a twilight that quickly sucked away the day’s heat. Lexa pulled on her flannel and hoped it would be enough. Clarke put on her own jacket as well, one that Lexa had bought her a couple of months ago. It still filled her with satisfaction whenever she saw Clarke wearing something she had bought her (which was most of the time, considering how impractical Clarke’s wardrobe had been).

They set up their camp in silence, Lexa tying up a tarp between the trees and Clarke gathering water from the stream. In a few minutes, Lexa had their sleeping bags arranged on a blanket beneath the tarp, and Clarke had built a fire out of the branches that were littering the ground.

Lexa was taken aback by how easily and quickly Clarke had built the fire, but considering Clarke’s many skills, maybe she shouldn’t have been. “You’re pretty good at that,” Lexa said, gesturing to the fire that crackled in the dusk. The world was reduced to gray tones, except for the pure brightness of their fire.

“My dad taught me,” Clarke said, staring into the flames, voice flat and distant. “He took me camping sometimes. I hated it.”

This was the first time Clarke had mentioned her father. Lexa had her suspicions, but she asked anyway. “What happened to him?”

“Construction accident.” Clarke’s voice remained emotionless, but Lexa thought her eyes were shimmering in the light of the fire. “He was lead engineer on a new skyscraper. He thought one of the beams was installed incorrectly and could be unsafe… and he was right. He was evacuating the site and checking to make sure that no one was still inside... and the whole building collapsed on top of him.”

Lexa tore her eyes away from Clarke and stared into the flames. It was such a personal moment, so raw, that it felt like an intrusion to watch her as she shared this. “That was very brave of him. He must have saved a lot of lives.”

But Clarke just pursed her lips and poked around the fire with a stick. “My mom got even more obsessed with her practice after that. I barely saw her. And we never went camping again after that.”

But the fire continued to burn and snap and warmed them as the night cooled. Lexa didn’t know what to say, or if she needed to say anything, but she couldn’t let Clarke feel like she was alone. “He may be gone, but his fire still keeps you warm,” she murmured into the night.

Silence descended on them once again, but Clarke added a log to the fire, spurring it even larger and brighter. They listened to the buzzing of insects and the wind rustling the leaves in the trees for a long time, and Lexa felt her weary muscles sagging with the thought of sleep.

But finally, when Lexa was about to lay back into her sleeping bag and get as good a night’s rest as she could on the cold ground, Clarke cleared her throat. “What happened to your family, Lexa?”

It was a lot to get into this late at night. She thought about just telling her goodnight and letting the matter rest forever. She didn’t owe Clarke her story, after all. But then again, Lexa didn’t owe her an overnight search for her favorite calf, either. If not for Clarke, Lexa would have returned that night and resumed the search in the morning.

And yet, there they were.

But if there was any good time to tell her story, Lexa supposed it had to be a night like this, surrounded by miles and miles of desolate grassland, firelight warming their faces. Secrets seemed less serious when shared in the dark.

So Lexa pulled her flannel closer around herself and told Clarke everything. How her mother had inherited the ranch from her family. How her father had come here to work over the summers during high school. How he had asked her to marry him out in the fields one day. How they constructed the cabin themselves, built up the ranch from twenty cattle to over one hundred, and happened to have a daughter along the way.

And then Lexa told her how it all ended: in a car crash so violent and senseless that everyone in the community was in shock. How the town came together, provided Lexa enough food and goods and supplies to last her literally for years, but no one could give her back the two people that she wanted most.

That’s how 17-year-old Lexa inherited the ranch. It was the last piece of her parents that she had left, and the reason why the thought of another hard winter pushing her to sell the ranch was so terrifying.

As silence settled between them and the fire burned low, Lexa watched the half moon make its slow journey across the sky. The night was chilly, but Lexa warmed when Clarke moved to her side. They didn’t touch, but it was a reminder that she wasn’t alone.

Clarke’s voice, low and soft, broke through the crackling of the fire. “I think they would be proud of you.”

Lexa didn’t respond. Couldn’t, really. Her parents would be proud of her, no matter what happened to the ranch. But Lexa wouldn’t be able to live with herself if she had to sell it. She would honor their memory, no matter what it took.

When they finally zipped into their sleeping bags, Lexa stared up at the stars for what seemed like hours, her mind turning and lost in memories that had been unearthed that night. But feeling that pain meant that her love for her parents was still alive. Hurting was a small price to pay to know that she would never forget how much they meant to her.

Well into the night, Lexa heard Clarke shifting beside her and a long sigh. It seemed that she had her own pain to deal with.

The next day, the sun blazed hot and had them sweating in the saddle. They had to regularly detour back to the stream to refill their water bottles, which had Clarke on edge with the time they were losing. But with only a couple hours of daylight left, Clarke let out an excited cry.

“Dany!”

She galloped down the hill to where the calf was tangled by her fur in the barbed wire fence. Even though Lexa was exhausted, Clarke’s bright smile made it all worthwhile.

When they managed to cut her loose, Clarke dropped to the ground and hugged Daenerys tight in her arms, tears streaming down her face. And Lexa thought that, if a calf was capable of hugging, Daenerys hugged her right back, burrowing her furry head into Clarke’s chest and calling out excitedly.

Lexa knew it was such a bad idea. These calves were raised for beef. They, including Daenerys, would be sold and slaughtered in just a few months. And yet, seeing the pure joy on Clarke’s face, and God damn it, if she didn’t think that was joy on Daenerys’ face tool… Lexa couldn’t criticize Clarke for caring so deeply about her, even if she knew her fate.

Watching Clarke and Daenerys’ reunion, and how Clarke’s smile was wide and free, her laughter exuberant, her devotion unwaverable, her spirit unstoppable, Lexa realized something.

You really can’t choose who you fall for.

Chapter Text

Clarke was certain that Lexa was torturing her on purpose.

Why else would Lexa be slowly squatting down with perfect form, her ass jutting out and hugged tightly by her jeans, to lift another hay bale into the truck? Why would she have worn that tank top that put her arm tattoo and flexing biceps on full display and even gave a hint of a tattoo on her back? (And how hadn’t Clarke known sooner that she had a back tattoo?! That was valuable information.) Even Lexa’s hair, pulled back into a thick braid and slung over one shoulder, with little wisps escaping more and more throughout the day, was doing things to Clarke that had her zoning out and losing focus more than once. It simply wasn’t fair what Lexa was doing.

“Eyes up, champ.”

Clarke nearly gasped in surprise at the sound of Anya’s voice right beside her ear. Having finished her work in Polis for the day, Anya had been helping them with the last couple of truck loads of hay at Indra’s farm. Clarke cleared her throat and took one side of the rectangular hay bale into her gloved hands (the gloves that Lexa had bought her earlier that year… Clark still thought about her every time she put them on).

Anya took the other side of the bale, and on the count of three they moved it across the barn and into the truck. Lexa was already on her way back to the diminishing stack of bales to grab another, on her own. She had been moving bales all day by herself, and frankly, Clarke was impressed.

(And more than a little turned on. She didn’t know a lot of women with that kind of strength and endurance.)

Despite their lugging hay that was heavier than Clarke thought it had any right to be, Anya smirked over at Clarke dangerously. “Do you make it a habit to check out your employer?”

“What?” Clarke stole a glance back to Lexa--just to make sure she hadn’t heard, obviously. “I wasn’t checking her out,” Clarke blubbered so unconvincingly that Anya laughed in her face.

“Oh really?” Anya asked. “Is that why your eyes are bugging out of your head every time that Lexa bends over?”

Clarke groaned under the weight of the hay bale, and she adjusted her grip. “Can we…talk about this…” Clarke was breathing heavily now.  “When we’re not holding the heaviest fucking grass in the world?”

“Suit yourself,” Anya said, barely even breathing hard. Clarke hated her for it (even if hate in this case was strangely close to jealousy). “We can always discuss it over our group dinner tomorrow night. I think Lexa would like to hear your thoughts on the matter as well.”

They had reached the truck, and Clarke flung her side of the hay bale into the back with more force than she had used all day. Something about embarrassment-induced anger had that effect. She leaned against the back of the truck, catching her breath. “Anya, seriously, what the fuck. Anyone with a pulse would be looking at Lexa right now.”

Not being able to control herself, Clarke watched as Lexa picked up another bale. Her arms flexed gloriously, and Clarke let herself stare.

“Guess I must be undead, then” Anya joked, crossing her arms. “I haven’t looked at her once.”

“Yeah, because you’ve been watching me the whole day, you perv,” Clarke said with an extra dose of sarcasm, trying to hold onto whatever shred of dignity she had left that day. “But can you keep this to yourself? I’m trying my best.”

She took a long swig of water from her bottle. She thought she had never sweated this much in her life, and she had the distinct suspicion that she didn’t look half as hot as Lexa did while covered in sweat and bits of hay. After six months on the ranch, physical labor still wasn’t her strong suit, even if she had felt a few extra pounds sliding away.

Before Anya could respond, Lexa approached them with another hay bale.

“Come on, this is our last truck load,” Lexa said to them as she threw the bale into the back of the truck as if it were a stack of feathers. “We’ll take a break when we’re done.”

“Yes ma’am, thank you ma’am,” Anya said, fake saluting her.

Lexa just rolled her eyes, but Clarke wasn’t prepared for the confiding smile that Lexa gave her next before turning back to the barn to get another bale. And God, was Lexa strutting? It was like her muscles had expanded so much over the course of the day that her swagger was the only way to accommodate them all.

“What exactly are you trying your best to do?” Anya murmured to Clarke as they followed behind Lexa at a distance. “Because it looks like you’re trying to undress her with your eyes.”

Clarke turned on her, cutting her off and putting her back to Lexa. It helped, not being able to see her. “Listen. This is the longest I’ve gone without sex since I was 17. I’m sorry I keep checking out your friend, but…” With that, Lexa rushed past them again, the tank top revealing toned biceps that were practically popping out of her arms. Clarke realized she was staring again, and she looked back to Anya’s amused and insufferable expression. She sighed and shook her head. “It’s just been a long time, OK?”

“Is that all?” Anya raised an eyebrow. “Should I be afraid that you’ll hump me at any opportunity too?”

“God, no. Definitely not,” Clarke said, turning back to the barn and storming inside. In the back of her mind, she knew that she probably should have rephrased that to the person who hired her, but Anya deserved it, and was so wrong, and needed to just shut up already. (Although Clarke acknowledged that Anya was very attractive as well, but there was no competition when Lexa was right there.)

Anya caught up to her again and took her arm, stopping her progress. Clarke couldn’t believe they were talking about this. Didn’t they have a job to do? Or were they going to make Lexa do it all just because Anya couldn’t stop giving her shit about something that she had under control, mostly?

“OK, I went too far,” Anya admitted, even if she still looked too smug for Clarke’s liking. “But I’ve been wanting to tell you this for a long time…” Anya looked over her shoulder to make sure Lexa wasn’t in earshot. “You’re really good for her. I’m her best friend, and I’ve known her for longer than anyone. She hasn’t been the same since you came here. She’s been… happier. More relaxed, which is pretty important for someone as high-strung as Lexa.”

Clarke kept her eyes fixed on Anya. She was suddenly listening very hard. “What are you saying?”

“I’m saying that I’m watching you,” Anya said, a hard glint to her eyes. “And that you better not do anything to hurt her.”

This conversation was giving Clarke whiplash. “So you’re giving me your blessing, but you’re also threatening me? Which is unnecessary, by the way,  because I would never do anything to hurt her. As her friend or… otherwise,” Clarke added, even the abstract thought of it making her breath hitch.

“See that you don’t.” Anya grabbed hold of her shoulder and gave it a friendly squeeze that quickly turned painful. “Because if you do, there’s nowhere that you’ll be able to hide, Clarke.” Anya released her shoulder and smoothed down Clarke’s crumpled shirt over her arm. “But she won’t shut up about you. I have second-hand embarrassment for her.”

Lexa walked past them to get the last bale still remaining in the barn but slowed when she saw Anya’s hand on Clarke’s arm. “What’s going on?”

Was it just Clarke, or did Lexa look protective? Or… jealous?

Clarke shot her a smile to dispel her worry. “I had some hay stuck on me,” she explained, the excuse sounding fake even to her own ears. “We’ll get the last bale, right Anya?”

“If you can handle it,” Anya responded with a hint of challenge. When they were throwing the last of the hay into the truck, and Lexa was already in the front and starting the engine, she said, more quietly, “Don’t fuck it up.”

Clarke only responded with a twist of her lips and a small wave goodbye as she got into the passenger seat of the truck.

There wasn’t even anything to fuck up. Lexa had warmed up to her over the past few months, but that didn’t mean she was attracted to her.

(But… Lexa had helped Clarke find Daenerys. She had listened to Clarke talk about Finn and her mom. And, maybe even more importantly, Lexa had opened up to her about her parents and her ex-girlfriend, Costia.)

But did that really mean anything, or was Clarke just seeing what she wanted to see?

“Ready, Clarke?”

Lexa was looking over at her, a few strands of hair still stuck to her sweaty forehead. She looked even more serene than usual, leaning back comfortably in the driver’s seat, her green eyes filled with satisfaction after a hard day’s work, lips full and tender and… Clarke forced herself to look back up to Lexa’s eyes.

“I’m ready,” Clarke said, with additional meaning. She was unable to hold back a grin that prompted a confused look from Lexa in return.

But then Lexa was putting the truck in gear and sending up a cloud of dust behind them. And as they shot across the miles and miles of dirt roads back to the ranch, Hank Williams on the radio, the day waning and setting the horizon on fire, Clarke could only think of one thing.

She was ready for Lexa, if Lexa was ready for her.

**********

There was no way it was already snowing .

Clarke inhaled deep, that distinct smell of snow thick in the air for the first time that autumn. She pulled the blanket closer over her shoulders, when she heard the cabin’s front door opening and closing behind her. Lexa lurched to her side still half-asleep.

“Clarke? What are you doing out here?” she mumbled in a way that Clarke tried hard not to think was cute.

It was still completely dark outside, still hours from sunrise as far as Clarke could tell. But she had been too distracted by the look out of her window to even bother checking the time. Low clouds filled the sky, and the world was silent as the flakes fell lightly.

“Look at this. It’s not even October yet,” Clarke said with a mixture of awe and disgust.

“Hmm?” Lexa’s eyes were barely open, let alone looking at the object of Clarke’s interest. Clarke tried not to let her gaze linger on Lexa’s sleep-ruffled hair, or how her pajamas made her look like she had just woken up on Christmas morning. But she couldn’t help but notice that Lexa was shivering slightly in the cold.

“Come here,” Clarke said, and not giving herself a chance to second-guess herself, she wrapped one end of the blanket around Lexa’s shoulders.

Lexa’s turned more alert almost immediately. “Why… why are you awake?”

Clarke looked back out over the light dusting of snow across the ranch. “Because part of me is hoping that this is a dream, and that if I stare at it for long enough, it won’t actually be snowing in September.”

She knew that wrapping the blanket around Lexa may have been a mistake. Not because Lexa hadn’t been cold, or that Clarke didn’t enjoy having a hand resting lightly on Lexa’s shoulder. Rather, she enjoyed it too much: they were suddenly so close, Lexa’s sleepy, vanilla scent clouding her judgement, overwhelming her senses even more than that certain element of magic that accompanies a season’s first snow.

Lexa was relaxing again beside her, pulling the blanket closer around her--and bringing Clarke even closer against her. “It will melt in the morning. It’s nothing to worry about.”

“Who said I was worried about it?”

Lexa turned to her, lips parted, eyes wandering, and Clarke held her breath. They had never been this close--Clarke would have remembered, would have turned the moment over in her mind again and again, memorizing the lines of Lexa’s jaw in the pale light, the bloom of her lips, the glint of her eyes. But when Lexa turned away, Clarke felt like she was startled back into reality.

“You’re the one who rushed out of the house at 2 AM,” Lexa murmured. Clarke watched her swallow thickly. In the stillness of the early morning snowfall, Clarke could even hear her gulp.

“And you’re the one who rushed out after me.” Clarke lowered her voice to a whisper. It was too dangerous a thing to say any louder, but she couldn’t hold it back. “Maybe you’re worried about me ?”

The snow’s stillness surrounded them just as much as the blanket around their shoulders, and Clarke wondered if she had said it too softly. Or too loudly.

But Lexa broke the silence. “Not worried about. Concerned for.”

It was such a nitpicky Lexa thing to say that Clarke laughed into the night. It seemed liked the entire world must have heard her. She didn’t care if it had.

Lexa pushed the blanket--and Clarke’s hand--off of her shoulder, slowly, and maybe reluctantly. “We should get back to bed.”

And even though their physical contact was broken, it was such an intimate phrase that Clarke felt closer to her than ever before. She didn’t think that Lexa realized what she had said, or what it sounded like, because she just walked back into the cabin as if nothing between them had changed.

But Clarke knew better. Things were changing, gradually.

And when she had returned to her room and pulled the blanket up to her chin, she could just make out a hint of vanilla.

She pulled the blanket even closer.

The next morning, when an inch of snow lingered on the ground to spite the warming autumn day, Clarke coaxed Lexa out of the cabin and managed to land a snowball right in the center of her chest. Lexa was reluctant at first, but it soon spiralled into a full-blown snowball fight with vicious attacks and promises of ceasefires that ended in snow being pushed down the back of Clarke’s shirt. By the time it was all said and done, they were both soaked and had to go back to their rooms to change before they headed out for the day.

It was a horrendous waste of daylight hours, as far as the ranch was concerned. And yet Clarke thought that throwing snowballs at each other was exactly what that morning September snow was meant for.

And for better or for worse, Clarke’s belly had been filled with more butterflies than a snowball fight deserved. Because Lexa had been there, crouching slightly, packing a snowball in her hands, grin devious. A snowflake had lingered on her eyelashes and sparkled in the autumn sunshine.

Trying to fall asleep that night, Clarke could forget none of it.

**********

Clarke dropped down into the diner booth with a satisfied sigh. She had intentionally planned her trip into Polis so that it would align with lunch time--lunch was the only break she ever got until the sun set and it was impossible to work outdoors anymore. It was good just to sit, even if it was only for a few minutes. Besides, it it had been far too long since she had last talked to Raven, and calling her during lunch was a perfect chance to catch up and see how grad school was treating her so far.

“Clarke! I haven’t seen you in ages.” The waitress--Sienne, as Clarke had discovered during her last visit--beamed at her as she slid a menu across the table. “Lexa’s finally giving you some time off again?”

“She doesn’t know I’m here,” Clarke said confidentially with a playful, searching look around herself. “So let’s keep this between ourselves?”

Sienne shot her an amused look. “Your secret’s safe with me. But don’t let her be a stranger! Bring her out here with you next time. She spends too much time on that ranch of hers by herself.”

Clarke imagined coming to the diner with Lexa, sitting across from her and ordering and fighting over the bill. She wondered if it would feel like a date… and whether taking someone to a diner could ever be construed as a date. “She’s not really the type to take a long break during the middle of the day, but I’ll see what I can do.”

“You should! I’ll even give you two some sundaes on the house,” Sienne urged, with a wink. “Now what can I get you today?”

Clarke ordered her usual artery-clogging hamburger with bacon and took out her cell phone and a pair of headphones. She had thought this through and decided she might be able to have a decently private conversation with Raven, if she just bypassed the terrible speaker on her phone and used headphones instead. She plugged them in and waited for Raven to pick up.

“Wow, after 10 in the morning. You’re making some real progress, Griffin.”

“Hey, I’m the best friend in the whole world, and don’t you forget it,” Clarke said into the phone’s microphone. “And I didn’t feel like hearing you complain about how early it was for half the phone call.”

“OK, that happened exactly one time,” Raven insisted airily. “And it’s because you were trying to ruin my sleep cycle and therefore my entire life.”

Laughing, Clarke was so grateful that she had the time to call Raven. Messaging someone online was just never as good as talking to them, even on the phone. “Believe it or not, that’s not what I wanted to talk to you about. How the hell is grad school?” As a couple of heads in the restaurant swiveled toward her, Clarke cleared her throat and stared down at the table. “I mean, how the heck is grad school.” The other customers returned to their meals.

“You’re at that diner again, aren’t you,” Raven said with amusement. “They really need to get a grip and learn that swearing makes everything approximately three hundred times funnier.”

“Right I’ll break down the town’s moral code and get them cussin’ just like the rest of us after lunch. But answer the question. How is everything?”

Raven’s voice was infectiously enthusiastic. “Oh my God, Clarke, grad school is incredible. They’re letting us blow up a bridge next week!”

“Um. Good?” Clarke didn’t really know how to respond to that. “Are you sure you won’t be arrested for terrorism?”

That earned Clarke another glance from the table across from her. She really needed to watch what she said a little more carefully, but Raven brought out the worst (or best, depending on your perspective) in her.

“It will be a terrorist-free zone,” Raven promised. “They just built a new bridge and need this one demolished. And who better to do it than some civil engineering kids with a completely healthy obsession with explosives?”

Sienne dropped off her plate piled high with the burger and french fries, a slight frown on her face, but she left Clarke’s table without saying a word.

Clarke began tearing into her food, which was another advantage of wearing headphones while on the phone. “Of course. Well, take a video or something. I want to see it, and you can totally brag to the grandkids about this later.”

“Grandkids? Really, Clarke? I’ll be able to brag about this way before grandkids happen. For example…”

“What? For example what?” Clarke asked, her curiosity getting the better of her. “You can’t leave a girl hanging like that.”

Raven let out a nervous laugh, which was how Clarke knew this was going to be good. “There’s this girl…”

Clarke dropped her burger and sat up straight in the booth. “You better fucking spill, Raven,” she said more loudly than she should have, but she didn’t care.

“I will, if you give me a fucking chance!” Raven grumbled. “Her name’s Octavia…”

“I love it. Great name.”

Clarke . I met her at a grad student pub crawl, and… she’s smart and beautiful and almost as funny as I am.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t tell her that last part,” Clarke said with a grimace.

But Raven went on undeterred. “But I don’t know if she’s interested in me at all. She was flirting a lot with this other grad student with tattoos, muscles, the works. But she kinda flirts with everyone, so I don’t know…”

“There’s only one thing to do,” Clarke said as seriously as she could. “You’ve got to show her the ol’ Raven razzle dazzle.”

“The fuck, Clarke. What does that even mean.”

“Oh, you know what it means,” Clarke continued meaningfully. “Wear one of those tank tops that shows off your arms, talk about soil dynamics or whatever you went off about at that party last year, and she’ll be falling all over you, I swear.”

“OK, first of all, soil is incredibly underappreciated in today’s society, and that guy at the party kept calling it dirt . He needed to be educated.”

Clarke could only laugh, remembering how quickly that guy had made up some lame excuse to get more beer after Raven had started on her lecture that night. “My point is, you have to just be yourself. And if she doesn’t like it, her loss.”

“Yeah yeah yeah, I’m a special snowflake and really hot and super smart and all that, I know. But anywaaaay,” Raven drawled meaningfully. “How is Lexa these days? Have you guys done it yet?”

Did Clarke imagine it, or did Sienne’s eyes widen as she walked past her table? Impossible. She couldn’t have heard what Raven was saying. Clarke adjusted the headphone buds in her ears to make sure they were secure.

“No, of course not.” Clarke tried to sound aggravated, but what was the use? There was no point to lie to Raven. “But…”

Raven just laughed in her ear. “I so called that shit.”

Clarke fairly crumpled onto the table, pushing the remnants of her lunch away. “It’s not my fault she’s really hot. God, you should have seen her lifting hay bales the other day…”

“You sound like such a country hick. And I knew you couldn’t go more than a few months without hooking up with someone.”

“Yes, I could. I have. It’s been six months! I’ve done so good!”

“Uh huh.” Raven’s disbelief could not be more obvious. “So is she being less of a bitch, or is that part of the appeal?”

Clarke held her face in her hands. How was she supposed to explain all of this to Raven, when she barely understood it herself? “I think she was just acting that way because she was worried I couldn’t hack it out here. This ranch is crazy important to her.”

“More than showing other people basic human decency? Interesting.”

“I’m not here to justify the way she acted before,” Clarke said, frustrated, but she was struck by an image of Lexa sitting near the campfire, sharing with her about her family and the ranch. It was hard to reconcile how Lexa had treated her before with what Lexa had become to her.

But that was all too much to go into right now. She held the bridge of her nose between her fingers, trying to work through her jumbled thoughts. “All I know is that she’s attractive and I’m attracted to her and that it’s really impressive that she has her own ranch. But it’s not like it matters.”

“Why not?” Raven asked. “You like her, she probably likes you. You might as well do it.”

“I would normally agree with you, but Lexa’s not like that. And I’m leaving soon, or soon-ish. I’ve started applying for vet schools next year, and I’m out of here in April, and whatever happens or doesn’t happen with Lexa won’t change that.”

“I get that. But I’ve never known Clarke Griffin to call someone hot and not at least try to fuck them.”

At even just the thought of it, Clarke had to remind her heartbeat that there was no guarantee that Lexa felt the same way about her, no matter how much of her biceps, or how much of her past, she decided to reveal.

“I’m not going to try, ” Clarke said, even as a smile came over her. “But I’m not going to not try either, you know?”

Raven snorted into the phone. “I have no idea what that means. Just let me know when you guys bone, so I can rub it in your face later.”

A few more minutes of teasing and life updates and laughs, and Clarke had to tell Raven that it was time to get back to the ranch. She promised to call more often and meant it. Talking to Raven was a good reminder that the outside world was real, as much as it felt like the ranch and the cattle (and Lexa) were all that existed anymore.

Clarke stuffed her headphones into her pocket and went up to the cashier to pay. Sienne gave her a tight smile as she handed her the bill.

“Did you have a good call with Raven?” Sienne asked with too much politeness.

“Uh, yeah I did. She just started grad school,” Clarke explained, finding enough change in her wallet for the tip.

“I heard,” Sienne said, lowering her voice. “And I heard about Lexa, too.”

Clarke focused on her hard. “What? I wasn’t talking too loud, was I? I--”

“I don’t think your headphones work all that well.” Sienne gave her a sympathetic look. “Or maybe they weren’t plugged in all the way?”

Clarke’s cheeks were suddenly burning like the sun. “Oh my God. You heard everything, didn’t you?”

“Have you thought about telling Lexa how you feel?” Sienne asked with concern. “Honesty is the best policy, after all.”

Clarke just threw the next smallest bill she had on the counter. It was a ten and more than a 100% tip,  but she didn’t care. “Keep the change. I have to go, Sienne. Um, ranch stuff, and all that.”

Sienne nodded graciously. “Of course. I’ll see you next time, and let me know if you want to talk. But… Clarke? Maybe leave the phone at home next time. My other customers… you know how it is.”

Clarke assured her she would and fairly ran out of the diner.



**********



For as tough as Lexa pretended to be, she really was a pushover. True, Clarke almost always got her way with people eventually, but it was usually more of a struggle. (Or maybe the low-cut shirt she had taken to wearing around the cabin at night was really all the strategy she needed.)

In any case, it had only taken a week to convince Lexa to go do karaoke with her for her birthday.

It was a tradition that had started in freshman year of college, all her friends armed with fake IDs, an arsenal of tunes, and an insatiable thirst for anything alcoholic. And although her college friends were a thousand miles away, and she wouldn’t be able to do her customary duet of Bootylicious with Raven, Clarke didn’t see why she had to abandon her traditions just because she lived in the middle of nowhere.

When Clarke brought it up one night after a long day of work, Lexa barely put up a fight.

“Clarke, Polis doesn’t even have a karaoke bar.”

“Oh really?” Clarke handed her a business card that looked like it had been used as a beer coaster (probably because it had been). “I may have done some investigating and met a nice guy named Gustus, who owns that shady-looking bar in town. He said that every Wednesday is karaoke night from nine to closing. And Wednesday just so happens to be my birthday.”

Lexa was now looking slightly mortified, which Clarke thought was hilarious. “How convenient.”

“Gustus also had some things to say about you…” Clarke tried to mention as casually as she could.

Lexa’s face darkened immediately. “What things?”

“Oh, just that you guys went to high school together,” she said casually. “And that you were both in the school choir. He said he’s really looking forward to telling me more stories about you as a teenager.”

Lexa glared in the direction of town, as if Gustus would be able to feel the heat of her glare all the way from the ranch. “He won’t be telling you anything by the time I’m done with him.”

Clarke grinned at her. “So does that mean you’re going?”

Lexa sighed deeply, but Clarke didn’t miss the way her gaze wandered across Clarke’s body, if only briefly. When Lexa’s eyes returned to meet her own, she looked like a soldier getting ready to parachute out of a plane into the middle of a warzone.

“This is my birthday gift to you,” she said stoically.

Clarke lit up. “It’s a deal.”

She extended her hand, and Lexa took it after some hesitation. She was reminded of that cold spring afternoon, all those months ago, when she had first shaken Lexa’s hand. Everything was so different now.

(Everything was better.)

Clarke brought herself back to the moment as she released Lexa’s hand, excitement building in her at the thought of Lexa singing… and maybe drinking a little too much. “You should know,” Clarke continued, “I’m not letting you leave that bar sober.”

“Someone has to drive us home, Clarke,” Lexa said with annoying logic.  

But Clarke just frowned at her, knowing she had already won. “That would be illegal and dangerous, because you’re going to be seeing double by the end of the night. But nice try.”

“But that wasn’t part of the agreement when we shook on it.”

“It was implied,” Clarke said, maybe enjoying Lexa’s frustration a little too much. “And you, as my friend, have to honor my birthday wishes.”

Lexa folded her arms, but Clarke thought she still looked a little nervous. “We’re friends now?”

“Uh, yes?” Clarke had said the word without thinking, but she started to feel worry knotting in her gut. If Lexa didn’t even see them as friends, would it be possible to be anything more to her? “Lexa, you helped find my favorite calf in all the world and didn’t kill me when I threw a snowball in your face. We’re friends.”

Lexa’s brow remained furrowed for so long that Clarke knew she was deliberating far more than just whether she could go to the bar with Clarke. But eventually, Lexa’s gaze softened. “I can have a couple of drinks, I guess.”

A couple? Oh, Lexa. She didn’t know that when it came to birthdays, Clarke required everyone with her to be just as drunk as she was.


**********

The bar was a relic from another time, wooden counters and tables and chairs that had been scrubbed clean for so many years that they practically shone in the dim light. The jukebox in the corner played classic country songs that Clarke thought she could now vaguely recognize after enough months of listening to country radio. And even though it was still early, at least for any bars that Clarke would have gone to back home, the place was starting to fill up with people, mostly older men wearing flannel shirts tucked behind shiny belt buckles.

Really, the bar was about what Clarke had expected out of rural Montana. But what she hadn’t been prepared for was Lexa.

As rough as the bar’s interior was, Lexa looked anything but rough. Lexa might deny it, but she had put some effort into tonight. She wore her hair down, the brunette strands hitting her shoulders in loose waves and contrasting with her her maroon button-up shirt. She only had one button undone, but the glimpse of neck that it revealed, and how the shirt hugged her form perfectly, were more than enough to ignite Clarke’s imagination.

And her eyes

Clarke had never seen her wear makeup before, but Lexa had walked out of their shared bathroom in the cabin with thick eyeliner that perfectly highlighted the vibrant green hues of her eyes. Clarke had to wonder if Lexa always got this fancy for the Polis bar.

(Clarke suspected that she didn’t.)

Of course, Clarke may have chosen to wear her skinny jeans that night (because they made her ass look amazing) and a low-cut blue shirt (that exposed a generous amount of cleavage). But after all, Lexa wasn’t the only one who could look hot in a country bar on a Wednesday night.

Sure enough, when she and Lexa stepped into the dimly lit bar that night, every eye in the bar had been on them.

Gustus, the enormous bartender with enough beard for three people, had seen them immediately. “Hey! Birthday girl! I’ve got a drink for you.”

He poured out a tequila shot and placed it in front of Clarke. But before she could even thank him, Gustus came out from behind the bar and wrapped up Lexa in his arms. Much to Clarke’s surprise, she let him without struggle.

“Lexa, how the hell have you been,” his deep voice rumbled. He picked her up off the ground for a moment, before holding her out at arm’s length. “I don’t see you a lot for someone who lives thirty minutes away.”

Lexa looked at him somewhat sheepishly. “You grew up on a ranch, too. You know how busy things get.”

But Gustus just glanced over to Clarke. “Is it just me, or does it sound like she needs a drink, too?”

“Definitely,” Clarke said, amused to see that Lexa already looked like she was regretting coming here. “I know it’s my birthday and all, but… I think she needs to let loose just as much as I do.”

“Well, that is one of the few things that Lexa isn’t good at,” Gustus said, returning behind the bar and pouring out a glass of whiskey (Clarke noticed it was the cheap whiskey that Lexa loved. She must have been drinking that stuff for a long time, if even her old high school friend knew about it).

“That’s not true.” Lexa crossed her arms, her voice monotone. “I’m very fun.”

Gustus just raised an eyebrow at her. He leaned in towards Clarke confidentially, even though his voice was still loud. “This, coming from the girl who didn’t go skinny dipping in the river on the last day of high school like everyone else.”

“We had all been drinking,” Lexa insisted with a huff. “Someone needed to stay behind, in case one of you started drowning .”

But rather than respond, Gustus uncapped the whiskey bottle again and topped up Lexa’s drink. “Let’s just go ahead and make this a double.”

Clarke laughed at that and lifted her tequila shot towards Lexa. Sighing, as if everything was against her better judgement, Lexa raised the whiskey glass, and Gustus joined in with a shot of his own.

But as their glasses met with a soft clink, Lexa’s eyes met hers, filled with something that Clarke couldn’t quite decipher.

“Happy birthday, Clarke,” she murmured, before downing a good portion of her drink. As always, she showed no reaction to the strong liquor. “Now grab another drink, because you have people to meet.”

**********

Old George, descendent of the original founder of Polis. Young George, who looked just like Old George but with a full head of hair. Matt Devries, who used to go out hunting with Lexa’s dad sometimes. Pat Lundgren, horse rancher who nearly chopped his thumb off in a sawing accident ten years ago. Amy Patterson, official midwife who spent forty years delivering babies all around Polis, including Lexa. (“Lexa had the chubbiest cheeks of any baby I’ve ever seen!” Amy exclaimed, much to Clarke’s amusement.)

They had made their circuit around the bar, and Lexa knew everyone-- everyone . They all commented on how long it had been since they had seen her, asked how the ranch was doing, asked if Lexa had found a man yet (Clarke tried not to snicker at that). And some of them brought up Lexa’s parents, letting her know (Clarke had a feeling for the millionth time) how sorry they were about what had happened. But Lexa deflected, asking about their sons or daughters, about their businesses, their land. And always, she introduced Clarke as her new ranch hand, bragged about their calves that year, and, with a smile toward her, that it was all thanks to Clarke.

Maybe it was the tequila talking, but Clarke really didn’t mind being bragged about to half the population of Polis, even if she didn’t fully understand why Lexa was doing this. Lexa had pretended like she hadn’t wanted to go to the bar (then did), insisted that she wasn’t going to drink (she was now three drinks in, at least), and now was leading Clarke around the bar like she was the top prize at a county fair (damn right she was).

So maybe that’s why Clarke felt emboldened. Yes, the alcohol was certainly helping, but Clarke thought that Lexa was going beyond what any normal employer would say about their employee.

When they had finished their tour of the bar and were heading back to the pool table, where Anya and Indra were locked into yet another game of pool, Clarke downed the rest of her drink and nodded toward Lexa’s almost empty glass.

“Next round’s on me,” Clarke said, already feeling the tequila warm up her belly. “What’s your drink, ma’am?”

It hadn’t even been that flirtatious, but Lexa still looked away, her cheeks reddening as her smile grew. “Clarke, have you ever seen me drink anything other than whiskey?”

“Ugh, I know,” Clarke teased. “Thank God I’m here to show you the wide world of booze.”

Lexa turned to her, stern. “If you insist on getting me anything else, even though I haven’t finished my current drink , I would like it to be whiskey.”

Clarke shook her head dramatically. “There are so many better options. I’m impartial to tequila, but what about a high-end bourbon? Or a mojito? Or… I don’t know, you seem like you’d enjoy a gin and tonic.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“You’re old, Lexa. An old soul, at least.” Clarke leaned down on the table, fully aware of how her shirt would dip down. To Lexa’s credit, she didn’t took, although Clarke swore her eyes widened. “And it’s my birthday, and you will not be drinking bottom-shelf whiskey all night long if I have anything to say about it.”

Lexa cocked her head to the side, smiling. “I’d be willing to try mid-shelf whiskey. If you’re buying.”

“You’re seriously making the poor college grad birthday girl buy you fancy whiskey? Wow.”

Lexa just took another tiny, dainty sip of her drink. “I have no scruples.”

“OK, you better finish that drink right now, because you’re far too sober if you’re able to properly use ‘scruples’ in a sentence.” Clarke rose from her seat abruptly. “Now I’m going to to the bar, and I’m going to get you whatever the hell I damn please, and you’re going to drink it. Because it’s my birthday, dammit. And no one, not even you, can turn down free liquor.”

Clarke huffed away to the bar before Lexa could respond, slamming her empty glass down and motioning Gustus over. “Why is Lexa so stubborn?”

He laughed, putting her glass into the sink. “She’s always been like that. She didn’t take anyone’s shit. Especially not mine.”

“So what was she like back in the day? What table did she sit at in high school?” When Gustus stared at her blankly, Clarke was forced to elaborate. “You know, in the cafeteria. Did she sit at the jock table? At the nerd table? Or oooh, she was a goth, wasn’t she?”

“I would pay to see that. She’s always dressed like a rancher. Hell, she even wore jeans and a flannel to prom,” Gustus said, looking over to her. Clarke followed his gaze and saw that Lexa had migrated over to Indra and Anya’s pool table. She was smiling more widely than Clarke had ever seen her, and she even let out a laugh. It was light and sincere and lit up her whole face, and Clarke wanted to hear it again.

Gustus turned his attention back to Clarke. “No, she was always the quiet kid. Didn’t open up to a lot of people. But she stood up to a lot of bullies. She saved me from a swirlie once in elementary school. I always looked out for her too after that.”

A less amusing thought occurred to Clarke. “And what about Costia?” she asked, against her better judgement.

“Oh, they were joined at the hip,” Gustus answered easily, as if it were obvious. “I thought for sure they were meant for the big leagues, but then, not everyone can handle living in the same small town and seeing the same people every day.”

“But Lexa can.”

“Oh yeah. She may not show it, but she loves every goddamn loser in this town. She’d give the clothes off her back for them. But it really takes the right person to get her out of her shell.” He gave her a meaningful look.

Clarke stared him down. “What?”

“Do you know how many years it’s been since Lexa was in my bar?” Gustus asked, his deep voice rumbling. “I almost thought she gave up her obsession with cheap, nasty whiskey.”

That was news to Clarke. Important news. She tried to control the flutter in her stomach. “No, that love affair still seems to be going strong. But why doesn’t she get out more? She’s smart and funny and… you know, she seems to know everyone around here.”

“Riiiiight,” Gustus drawled, glancing at her sideways. “So if she’s so smart and funny, then why are you wasting your time talking to me?”

Clarke sighed, regretting that the tequila had started to get her to open up… but not actually regretting it, because everything she learned about Lexa had been fascinating. “I’m talking to you because I’m parched. And Lexa doesn’t seem to understand the concept of a sloppy drunk birthday.”

“You sure about that?” Gustus held up a credit card from behind the bar. “Pretty sure she told me to charge all your drinks to this.”

“Son of a bitch.” Clarke turned her head to find Lexa again, who was now deliberately leaning on the pool table to get in front of Anya’s shot. “She’s good, I’ll give her that.”

“Since Lexa’s footing the bill, does that change your order?”

Clarke considered for a moment. “Keep the tequila coming for me, but for her… what’s a whiskey that’s better than the shit she’s used to drinking?”

**********

Clarke had switched to margaritas a while ago in an effort to slow herself down (tequila shots were a dangerous thing, even for her). But when Clarke returned to the table with two margaritas, Lexa wasn’t there.

Clarke sat down, taking another sip and looking around the bar for her, but then she heard it. The voice was soft at first, almost timid, but it gained confidence as she sang.

“I set out on a narrow way many years ago

Hoping I would find true love along the broken road”

Lexa was on stage, microphone in hand, barely looking at the lyrics scrolling on the TV screen in front of her. Gustus’ comments before about the school choir and Lexa being good at everything suddenly made sense, because Lexa’s singing was riveting. The other patrons in the bar kept chatting and joking as if nothing had changed, as if they weren’t astounded by Lexa secretly having a beautiful voice.

“But I got lost a time or two

Wiped my brow and kept pushing through

I couldn't see how every sign pointed straight to you.”

Leave it to Lexa to choose the absolute sappiest song for karaoke. And to sing it so fucking well, and now… oh.

With the chorus, Lexa decided to glance at her, haltingly at first, but more steadily as she sang. Clarke found herself glued to her seat, unable to move even if she wanted to.

(She didn’t want to.)

“Every long lost dream led me to where you are

Others who broke my heart they were like Northern stars

Pointing me on my way into your loving arms

This much I know is true

That God blessed the broken road

That led me straight to you.”

One by one, others in the bar took out their lighters and held them in the air, rocking them back and forth above their heads. Lexa laughed into the microphone at seeing so many people supporting her and seemed to get more self-conscious again… until she focused back on Clarke. The words came more naturally as she repeated the chorus and finished the song.

Applause and whistles, as well as a few “Atta girl, Lexa!”s filled the bar, and she rushed back to Clarke’s side and collapsed into the booth next to her.

“Well that was embarrassing,” Lexa said, drinking a good half of her margarita. She didn’t even complain that it wasn’t whiskey.

“Are you kidding me?” Clarke gawked at her. “You have the voice of a fucking angel , and you’re going to say that that was embarrassing?”

“An angel?” Lexa repeated, with a smile that could have been flattered or mocking or maybe a mix of both.

“I mean, I’ve never heard an angel sing, personally,” Clarke specified, “but I imagine they would sound a lot like you.”

Lexa took another sip of her drink and said, nonchalantly, “That’s probably true.”

When Clarke finally realized what she had said, she rounded on her. “You… little…. shit…”

Clarke’s fingers flew to Lexa’s stomach and started tickling, and before she knew it, Lexa was doubled over, trying to fight her off, and cackling louder than Clarke had ever thought possible, and her abs were flexing against her fingers as she laughed, and she was strong, trying to pull Clarke’s arms away. But Clarke was determined to make Lexa pay for that comment, and if she happened to be slowly pushing Lexa down the booth seat, pressing her body slowly on top of her, then all the better…

“Clarke…” Lexa just managed through her fits. “They’re calling for you.”

“I’m not falling for your tricks,” Clarke said, renewing her tickle attack, but then she heard it.

“Clarke?” The karaoke announcer said through the bar, and everyone knew that it was her and were looking at her.

Clarke stopped her attack and slowly sat up in her seat, the hairs on the back of her neck sticking up.

The announcer smiled at her from stage. “Before you come and sing us a song, we thought that we’d mix things up a little and sing a song for you first.”

And that’s how the entire bar--forty people, probably, give or take, in a tiny high plains town, in a tiny bar on a weekday karaoke night--began singing her happy birthday. It sounded like most of them were just as drunk as she was, which meant it wasn’t the prettiest song that Clarke had ever heard, but she still felt her throat tightening. She realized she wouldn’t exchange it for anything in the world, besides Lexa singing her another song.

Clarke gave one last tickle jab to Lexa’s stomach. “This is your doing, isn’t it?”

Lexa held her hands up. “Innocent until proven guilty.”

“Yeah, well, you need to work on your poker face.”

Lexa gave up her act and smiled, her lips pulling up into such a perfect look of tranquility that Clarke had never seen on her before. “Happy birthday, Clarke.”

Clarke suddenly knew that a relaxed Lexa, four or five or eight drinks in, was one of Clarke’s favorite Lexas.

But with the birthday song over, Clarke had fans to please, or a song to butcher, or maybe probably both. But she had heard the song she had submitted so many times on the radio since she had first arrived to the ranch back in April, that she had learned every word and found herself humming it everywhere she went.

She swerved her way to the stage, took the microphone in her hand, and waited as the acoustic guitar and tambourine introduction filled the bar.

“I wanna sweep you off your feet tonight

I wanna love you and hold you tight

Spin you around on some old dance floor

Act like we never met before, for fun.”

The entire bar cheered, despite how Clarke’s voice wavered. She risked a glance over to Lexa, who was still at their table, alone. But she was giving Clarke a soft look that somehow gave her more courage.

Clarke unclipped the cordless microphone from the stand and dropped down from the stage. She began moving around the bar, singing and rocking to the beat as she visited each table in turn.

“‘Cause you’re the one I want, you’re the one I need

Baby, if I was a king, you would be my queen

You’re the rock in my roll, you’re good for my soul, it’s true

I’m head over boots for you.”

She sang off key and her voice kept on breaking, but whatever Clarke lacked in the singing department, she thought she made up for it in enthusiasm. And maybe she did, because Lexa was still watching her every move.

(But who gave a fuck if she sounded good or not. It was her birthday.)

“The way you sparkle like a diamond ring

Maybe one day we can make it a thing

Test time and grow old together

Rock in our chairs and talk about the weather, yeah.”

Half of the bar was singing with her now. A group of men at the next table hooted and hollered as she danced past them, and she grabbed one of their beers and took a long swig of it. Clarke found herself glancing over at Lexa, and she was laughing her head off.

(If she had told herself a month ago that she would ever make Lexa laugh like that, she would have called herself crazy.)

When Clarke got to the chorus again, everyone in the bar joined in, and she thought the bar may actually be shaking as people stomped their feet in time. But Clarke returned to the stage and belted it out, all the while watching Lexa watch her.

“‘Cause you’re the one I want, you’re the one I need

Baby, if I was a king, you would be my queen

You’re the rock in my roll, you’re good for my soul, it’s true.”

Clarke swallowed thickly, realizing it wasn’t really just a song anymore for her. She grinned over to Lexa and sang the words directly to her. “I’m head over boots for you.”

Clarke was breathless, but the applause, free beer, and Lexa’s unbridled smile made her feel more energized than ever. She practically fell onto the bench beside Lexa, grinning ear to ear. “What did you think?”

Lexa was still giving her that look, somehow intense and indecipherable and kind all at the same time. “I didn’t even know you liked country.”

“I don’t, not really.” Clarke made sure to make eye contact. “But there’s parts of country life that I really like.”

Lexa’s small smile let her know that her meaning didn’t go unnoticed. “Is it the part where you go around drinking random people’s beer in the bar?” Lexa asked lightly, glancing past Clarke toward one of the other tables.

“What? No, of course not.” Clarke scowled at her, before giving her a sidelong look. “Well. Maybe that’s part of it.”

Lexa laughed at that, her carefree (drunken) laugh that Clarke was realizing she really enjoyed. “It was a good show, Clarke. I think Polis will be talking about it for a while.”

That was hard to believe, even for tipsy (rapidly becoming drunk) Clarke. “That wasn’t even my best performance. I didn’t flash my boobs once.”

Lexa’s eyes bugged out of her head for a moment before she regained her composure. “Is that what you normally do during karaoke?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know?” Clarke asked slyly.

“Yes,” Lexa said, as if it were obvious. “That’s why I asked.”

Clarke shrugged, taking another sip of her margarita (when did she even order this? Those shots were starting to get to her). “I don’t think once or twice can be considered ‘normally.’”

“Once or twice? Don’t you remember?”

“Hush, Lexa. Where. Is. Your. Drink.”

**********

There were far too many glasses of empty whatevers on the table now. Clarke knew that. She knew that two people shouldn’t drink that much in one evening. But they had, and all she felt was a vague sense of accomplishment under all of the drunk. She prided herself on being a heavyweight, at least for her size, and she thought that she would drink Lexa under the table. Beside her, Lexa burped, and her eyes were unfocused, and Clarke thought that maybe she had after all.

Most of the other people in the bar had left a long time ago. It was only a couple other tables, Gustus, and them, but Clarke wasn’t in a rush to leave anytime soon. If she did, this--whatever this was--might end.

Lexa scooted a little closer on the bench, which was nearly an impossible task, since their legs were all up against each other, their shoulders together, heads leaning in as if they had secrets to share.

(Clarke thought that the biggest secret of all, that she was maybe possibly slowly falling for Lexa, might come spilling out if she wasn’t careful.)

“Can I tell you something, Clarke?” Lexa said, slurring just slightly. It was endearing.

Clarke just nodded. She didn’t trust her voice after finishing her last drink.

“I hated you when you first showed up,” Lexa confided, looking a bit ashamed of herself. “I thought Anya was an idiot for hiring you. I thought you were going to ruin my ranch.”

Even as drunk as she was, Clarke knew that this was coming out of nowhere. “Insulting a girl on her birthday , Lexa. That’s pretty low…”

“No, no no,” Lexa said quickly. “But I was wrong.”

Oh. Clarke fought hard to focus on Lexa’s words, even though they were unclear and the room was spinning.

“You’re strong and brave and exactly what my ranch needed,” Lexa continued with emphasis, looking so earnest and serious, even as the words seemed to come out of her mouth in a jumble.

Clarke shot her a lopsided grin. “Just the ranch, huh?” She knew she was pushing it, was maybe being selfish, but the signals that Lexa had given her tonight, the singing and the drinking and how they couldn’t sit any closer on that bench just then… how was Clarke supposed to think that Lexa didn’t maybe feel something for her, too?

Lexa looked down at the table and scratched at the worn wood. Only a hiccup interrupted her solemn expression. “Not just the ranch,” she said in a small voice.

Lexa looked so small, then, hunched over the table, her slender fingers working at a sliver of wood. Clarke couldn’t stand seeing her like that, afraid or self-conscious about what Clarke meant to her, if she in fact meant that Clarke was good not just for the ranch . She needed Lexa to know that Clarke may be what the ranch (and Lexa) needed, but that Lexa was what the ranch (and Clarke) needed too.

But Clarke knew that if she tried to tell her that right now, the words wouldn’t come out the right way. She would bungle it and hate herself because then Lexa wouldn’t know that, if anyone at that table was special, it was her.

So Clarke did the only thing that made sense. She lifted her hand, ran her fingers along Lexa’s jawline, and pulled her lips toward her own.

Clarke held her breath as a thousand ideas of what Lexa’s lips would feel like filled her head: pillowy soft, moving gently like waves on a summer lake, calming and thrilling all at once… Drunk Clarke would admit to herself that she had thought about this moment more than once, probably more times than she should have.

But right before their lips met, Lexa pulled away.

Clarke stared at her, dumbfounded. “I… I’m sorry. I thought---”

“No. It’s fine. You’re fine.” Lexa looked at her, brow furrowed, slightly out of breath even though all they had been doing was sitting and talking (and almost kissing). “But I… I don’t want it to be like this.”

Clarke struggled to understand what she meant in her drunk haze. “Don’t want what to be like what?”

Lexa’s eyes searched hers desperately, even as a small smile broke through her suddenly anxious look. “I want to remember it. Every moment of it. When I kiss you, I want to be able to look back on it and relive it. I don’t want to wake up tomorrow morning and not be able to remember.”

Another hiccup tore through Lexa. She cursed under her breath, but it highlighted that yes, the both of them were far from sober and weren’t making the best decisions right now.

(Not like it had ever stopped Clarke before.)

Still, Clarke swallowed hard and tried to clear her head, but being this close to Lexa, and having been so close to finally kissing her… It took a long moment for Clarke to be able to pull back to a far enough distance where she could start to properly think again. “I should have laid off the tequila,” she finally managed to say, as joking as she could.

But Lexa was as serious as ever. “Is that OK?” she asked, concern clear in her eyes, her voice, and what Clarke thought might be the smallest tremble in her hands.

Clarke couldn’t help herself. She traced her fingers down Lexa’s neck to the open collar of her shirt, and she watched as Lexa’s mouth hung open in surprise. “I can’t pretend that I’m not disappointed,” Clarke said, but she somehow managed to stop her fingers as they reached past Lexa’s collar bone. “But I get it. I don’t understand where your self control comes from, but I get it.”

Lexa took her hand from her collar and brought it up to her lips, kissing the back of her knuckles. “Thank you, Clarke.”

Clarke stared at her, even as she felt her heart fill almost to bursting. “Did you just… kiss the back of my hand? That’s gotta be a first.”

Lexa lowered Clarke’s hand but didn’t release it. “Was it too much?”

“Oh no. No no no.” She strengthened her grip on Lexa’s hand, because she wasn’t sure how much longer she would be allowed to hold it. “Definitely not too much. You know that I wanted to make out with you until they kicked us out of the bar, right?”

“Right.” Lexa blushed, but her fingers tightened around Clarke’s hand. “Happy birthday, Clarke.”

Clarke smiled, even if a part of her was disappointed. But it was hard to stay disappointed when Lexa was looking at her like that, her eyes wrapping her up in their warmth.

Behind the bar, Gustus rang a bell that wouldn't be out of place in the back of a ranch house. “Last call!” he shouted.

Clarke looked down at their hands, still intertwined. “What do you say to one more drink?”

Lexa’s cheeks puffed up as she let out a breath. “Depends on if you want to carry me out of here or not.”

“Hmm, tempting,” Clarke said, knowing that she should probably stop flirting with Lexa, but she didn’t care. “I'd get to wrap my arms around you.”

Lexa blushed. Clarke loved that she could make her do that, even with such an innocent comment as that. “Then what are we drinking?”

***********

The sun was too bright.

It was brighter in Clarke's room than it had ever been before, and it made her so fucking angry, until her anger gave her a headache, and then she just suffered and felt like she would never move her body ever again. Her head was splitting in two, pounding with the force of a thousand freight trains, to the point where Clarke wondered if she would ever be able to get out of bed ever again.

She didn't remember getting home, which would normally be concerning, except she had been with Lexa, and she knew that Lexa would keep her safe.

Wait. Lexa.

Oh my God, she had tried to kiss Lexa.

Her eyes shot open, the sun blinding her, but Clarke had to check the bed around her. She was the only one in it. It was a strange mixture of relief and disappointment.

She groaned against the pain and grabbed the full glass of water on the nightstand beside her. Someone had also put two Advils right beside it. She took the pills and somehow managed to spill half the water on herself in the process, and it felt like the universe was adding insult to injury.

As she lay there, feeling sorry for herself, little bits of the night before started coming back to her.

Lexa's song that she sang to her. Her.

Button after button of Lexa's shirt coming undone during the course of the night (which was mysterious--Clarke had never seen Lexa actually unbuttoning them, and she was fairly certain that she hadn’t done it).

Lexa kissing the back of her hand… It would have been so ridiculous coming from anyone else, but from her… Somehow, Lexa made something dorky into something that Clarke would remember fondly for the rest of her life. She could almost still feel Lexa's soft, whiskey-soaked lips on her skin.

She remembered a truck… bouncing over dirt roads… Lexa's head on her shoulder, or at least it had been until Clarke had fallen asleep in the truck too.

Oh, and a very frustrated Anya, driving them back.

Clarke winced. She didn't even know when Anya had left the bar, but she probably hadn't been thrilled to be called in the middle of the night to pick up two blackout drunk people.

And by the sound of it, Anya had stayed the night in the cabin too. And her frustration hadn’t diminished.

“Lexa.” Anya was speaking loud enough in the kitchen for Clarke to be able to hear her through the closed door to her room. “You can’t just sit there all day cradling your head.”

Clarke couldn’t hear Lexa’s reply, but it evidently didn’t satisfy Anya.

“What was that?” Anya asked with a bite in her voice. “I couldn’t hear you over the sound of how pathetic you’re being.”

Clarke just pulled her sheet up to her chin. She didn’t want to go out there, not with Anya being loud and critical and quite frankly everything that no hungover person deserved. But her bladder was full to bursting after last night, so Clarke didn’t have the choice to remain in her nest of comparative comfort anyway.

She opened her door silently and meant to tiptoe to the bathroom to avoid detection, but Anya poked out from around the corner with her arms folded. “Ah. So she didn’t die from alcohol poisoning after all.”

Clarke dipped into the bathroom before Anya could stop her, but there was no escaping when she was done. She shuffled to the kitchen table and plopped down across from Lexa.

Up until this morning, every morning, Lexa had only emerged from her room after she had gone through her morning routine, which Clarke now saw had included the taming of her hair. But it hadn’t happened today: her brown curls sprang wildly around her head, which was nestled firmly between her two crossed arms on the table.

“Morning, Lexa,” Clarke said as normally as she could, as she poured herself a cup of coffee from the thermos on the table.

Lexa just grunted at her, and Anya rolled her eyes.

“She’s acting like this is the first time she’s ever gotten drunk before,” Anya quipped. “And I would know, because I was there.”

“The first time?” Clarke asked. The coffee slid down her throat like a magic elixir. She still felt like shit, but at least she could feel like an awake piece of shit.

“Oh yeah. If you give her anything other than straight whiskey, she’s the whiniest brat the next morning. Oh, and don’t be surprised if she blames you for her poor life choices. Because that has happened before, too.”

That was finally enough ridicule for Lexa to raise her head and glare at her, but her tired eyes and grimace of pain and out-of-control hair gave it little weight.

“Don’t you have work to do? You know, not in my kitchen?” Lexa said.

Anya just shook her head and looked over to Clarke. “And this is how she shows her gratitude for me driving your drunk asses home last night.”

Lexa was holding her head again, and Clarke almost felt guilty for encouraging her to drink so much the night before (even if Clarke had drunk more and was paying the consequences too). But if they hadn’t drunk so much, she wasn’t sure how much Lexa would have opened up to her, or if she would have kissed her hand like that, or laid her head on her shoulder in the truck, or if Clarke would have had the courage to pull Lexa’s lips towards her own.... Even if Lexa had pulled away, and even if they both felt like literal garbage that morning, Clarke thought they still had come out ahead.

Because as disappointing as it was to have only almost kissed Lexa, Clarke was certain that it wouldn’t stay almost forever.

Anya grabbed her jacket from the back of the chair and put it on, rolling her eyes at Lexa. “I’m reasonably sure that neither of you need to have your stomachs pumped, so I’m out of here. I’ll help you get your truck back later this afternoon when you’re functioning. But try not to make any more irresponsible decisions for a while, OK?”

Lexa grunted and Clarke nodded, which was evidently enough acknowledgement for Anya. A cold gust of air entered the cabin when she left, and silence fell between them.

Clarke thought that Lexa might lift her head from her arms at some point, but she was wrong. She just continued to sit there, her hair draped over her arms that were folded on the table that created some kind of hair cocoon for her hangover.

Clarke couldn’t stop looking at her. Maybe it was because Lexa was being so dramatic. Or that this was the first time that Clarke had seen her like this, so disheveled and needy. In any case, Clarke couldn’t deny that Lexa, even hungover, miserable, whiny, still reeking of alcohol and maybe still even a little drunk Lexa, was really cute.

“You gonna be OK there, champ?” Clarke asked. She resisted the urge to run a hand down Lexa’s hair. She suddenly needed to know how it felt, how soft it was, how it curled around her fingers. She kicked herself for not running her hands through it last night, when she was drunk and Lexa was drunk and she wouldn’t have had to explain why she was doing it.

Lexa mumbled something to her under her folded arms and hair fortress, but Clarke couldn’t understand. Finally, Lexa tilted her head and rested her cheek on one arm and pushed the hair out of her face with the other, but it still cascaded thick over her shoulder. “I said , you gave me tequila, didn’t you?”

Clarke winced slightly. “And rum.”

Lexa shut her eyes, as if her worst nightmares were coming true.

“But that’s really not my fault,” Clarke continued, even as Lexa’s gaze bored into her. “You said that you had never had a mojito, and I’m sorry, but you’re 25 years old and that’s completely unacceptable.”

“And the tequila?” Lexa said in between groans.

“You saw me drinking tequila shots, and you didn’t want to feel left out.”

“Ah.”

“Yeah…”

Clarke rested her head on her hand, and she swore she could pass out all over again right there. But then Lexa was smiling for the first time that day. It was still a little pained, but Clarke suddenly felt like staying awake to hear what she had to smile about was really important.

“You danced around the bar and sang a country song,” Lexa said.

“Guilty.”

Lexa’s smile slipped a bit. “I sang too…”

“Yes, you did. Better than I did, but with fewer dance moves.”

“And--” Lexa sat up bolt straight then, focusing on Clarke with something close to panic. “I think I kissed your hand. I am so sorry. So, so sorry--”

“Lexa…”

But Lexa just barreled on over Clarke. “I overstepped, and being drunk was no excuse for being so forward--”

“Lexa--” Clarke said more forcefully, but Lexa wouldn’t let her break in.

“And I know that’s a violation of your trust, and I will--”

“Lexa!”

Clarke placed one of her fingers on Lexa’s lips, and Lexa was immediately silent. Clarke could feel the lips parting beneath her finger in surprise, but nothing could distract her from how they felt under her touch, how they were large and full and honestly the most kissable lips that she had ever seen.

Even after Clarke slowly lowered her finger from Lexa’s lips. Lexa remained silent, swallowing thickly.

“You do remember how the rest of that conversation went, right?” Clarke asked.

The way that Lexa’s cheeks flushed told Clarke that she did.

“So if anyone overstepped,” Clarke continued, “I think it was me.”

“No.” Lexa’s answer was immediate, even her own eyes widening with the speed of it. “It’s just… it was the wrong time.”

“So if there’s a wrong time, there must be a right time?” Clarke didn’t want to smirk at her, but fuck, she couldn’t help it.

And evidently it wasn’t the wrong thing to do, because Lexa snorted a laugh that was followed by a grimace, as she held her head in her hands. But throughout it all, her eyes were still locked on Clarke’s. “That would make sense,” she said, through the obvious discomfort of her headache.

Clarke swung out of her chair then, suddenly feeling a million times better. Lexa had admitted that she wanted to kiss her. She was going to kiss Lexa , and shit, if that didn’t start a flurry of excitement in her chest. She realized that she had wanted to do this for a long time, and even though she hadn’t even done it yet, she knew that it was going to happen. She knew it was only a matter of time.

If there was any magic cure to a hangover, this had to be it.

Clarke opened the fridge, taking out the eggs and milk. “How do you feel about pancakes, Lexa?”

“Yes.” Lexa’s stomach grumbled in agreement.

“Scrambled eggs?” Clarke asked, already breaking the eggs into a bowl and starting to whisk them.

“I support.”

“And what about bacon?”

“Necessary.”

Clarke laughed as she placed the pans on the stovetop and turned up the heat. “Now you’re just being greedy.”

**********

Despite it feeling like everything between them had changed, everything seemed to stay the same, too. Life on the ranch continued as it had before: spending half the day on horseback counting the cattle, corralling them into new pastures, checking them for fleas, ticks, and diseases, giving boosters and medication, and all the myriad of other ranch tasks that needed to be completed.

It was getting steadily colder and windier, and Clarke was beyond grateful for the extra work clothes that Lexa had bought for her. She should have known, even back then, that their relationship wasn’t going to be purely professional. She still wasn’t quite sure what it was, but they had overstepped the boundaries of a normal working relationship months ago.

And even though Clarke could never be considered a patient woman, she tried to let things develop as they would. She wanted this, whatever this was, to be right. She still had months left on the ranch, and she knew that they would figure it out, eventually.

But she didn’t have long to wait.

They had an endless day of driving around the ranch in Lexa’s truck, checking and repairing the wooden posts and barbed wire all around the perimeter of the ranch. Autumn was short on the high plains, Lexa had told her, and it was only a matter of time before the snow would stick for good. It had been a dreary day, the dying grass below offering little contrast to the low gray clouds above. Despite all of her gear, Clarke could still feel the chill of the day in her bones.  

When they got back in the truck a little before sundown and turned down a road that led them away from the ranch, Clarke cast a curious look over to Lexa.

“Where are we going?”

Lexa kept her eyes on the road. “You’ll see.”

They didn’t speak after that, the miles disappearing beneath their tires, dirt and gravel kicking up at the truck, the sun peeking between the clouds bright in their eyes, country music low on the radio that sang about love and beer and the open sky.

They left the main road then, climbing up a series of switchbacks on faint tire tracks in the grass up the side of a hill. But when they reached the top, they had an expansive view of the entire grassland, the sun dipping low in the horizon and setting the bottom of the clouds on fire.

Lexa stopped the engine and got out of the truck, taking blankets from the back of the cab with her, and Clarke followed her lead. She climbed into the back of the truck, where they had stored the hay bales about a month ago, when Clarke had had difficulty keeping her eyes off of Lexa’s arms and back and everywhere else, really. They both sat down on top of one blanket and pulled another over the top of themselves to ward off the wind.

They leaned against the back window of the truck, close under the blanket, and watched as the sun sank lower in the horizon. After such a gray day, the brightness immediately lifted Clarke’s mood, and the rosy hues of the clouds put her at ease.

She looked away from the sunset to Lexa, who was still staring straight ahead, and nudged her shoulder into Lexa’s. “Did we stop work early today just so you could show me the sunset?”

“Our work for the day was done,” Lexa explained, stoic as usual and not taking her gaze from the setting sun. “And this was on the way home, technically.”

“Technically?” Clarke asked, skeptical.

“If we took the roundabout way. Which we did.”

“Ah.” Clarke barely managed not to laugh at Lexa’s almost pained expression. “So it’s not on the way at home at all.”

“Do you want to go?” Lexa finally focused on Clarke, her green eyes reflecting the setting sun’s brightness.

Clarke didn’t answer immediately, just sidled closer to Lexa under the blanket. The warmth coming off of Lexa’s body was more than enough reason to shift closer to her, but that was far from the only reason Clarke did it. She felt Lexa’s fingers brush up against hers under the blanket, tentatively. But Clarke was done with being tentative, with not pursuing the things that she wanted. She reached over and took Lexa’s hand in her own, intertwining their fingers there beneath the blanket. Lexa’s fingers shivered in her own, from cold or nerves Clarke could only guess, but they calmed the longer that Clarke held them.

“No,” Clarke said, squeezing her hand and looking back to her. “I don’t want to go.”  

Lexa’s smile grew, rivaling the beauty of the sunset before them, but she looked away and swallowed thickly. “This is the best place to watch the sunset in the whole county. But it’s not on my property. We probably shouldn’t be here.”

“I won’t tell if you won’t,” Clarke promised. Lexa’s hand was so warm in hers. It fit so perfectly. She ran her thumb over the back of Lexa’s hand, just because she finally could, and it was the most satisfied Clarke had been in a long time. “You know,” she said, forehead furrowing in thought, “I used to think that people in the country were… a lot different.”

The sun, low in the sky now, set the whole world pink, including Lexa’s cheeks. Clarke reminded herself that staring wasn’t polite but kept doing it anyway.

“Has living out here changed the way you think about us?” Lexa murmured. Being so close to each other, they barely had to speak above a whisper. Everything was silent around them, except for the wind in their ears. They may as well have been the last people on Earth.

“I thought everyone out her would be more close-minded,” Clarke began, watching the sun dip closer to the horizon. “That they would be so set in their beliefs, that they couldn’t possibly accept someone like me.”

“Someone like you?” Lexa asked with curiosity.

“You know, a woman from the city who supposedly can’t survive without her daily Starbucks. Someone who hasn’t worked an honest day in her life or would be able to do manual labor if she had to.” Clarke snuck a glance over to Lexa, who was listening intently. “And, if I’m being honest, I didn’t think a bisexual woman would find anyone like herself in small town, USA. I just… it’s been a lot different than I expected.”

It was Lexa’s turn to squeeze Clarke’s hand. “You’re not the only one who has learned something. I’ve spent all my life in this town. I looked down on people from the city. I thought they weren’t willing to work as hard as me, and that they looked down on me, too, for being less educated and having seen less of the world. But this is my world. I don’t want people to think I’m ignorant, just because I choose to stay here.”

“I don’t think you’re ignorant,” Clarke assured her quickly. She couldn’t let Lexa believe that, even for a second.

“And I don’t think you’re lazy, or entitled, or addicted to expensive coffee,” Lexa returned with a twist of her mouth. But she paused, her voice quieting. “I just know that I’m grateful that you’re here.”

Clarke couldn’t fight her smile. “Me too. I never could have imagined myself here a year ago, but now that I’m here, I can’t imagine my life any other way. And… I think we make a pretty good team, too.”

Lexa gulped loudly again, her cheeks reddening slightly. “On the ranch?”

The sun had sunk halfway below the horizon, but neither of them was looking now. Now, they only had eyes for each other.

Clarke leaned into her, her chest pressing against Lexa’s shoulder. The movement sent warmth throughout her body. “Lexa, I’m holding your hand and wanted to make out with you a few days ago. What do you think?”

Lexa grinned at that. Her entire face lit up, softened, looked so strong and feminine and fierce and exuberant. It was then that Clarke realized that Lexa was staring at her lips, and her smile faded as Clarke felt a tug on her hand and Lexa leaned toward her. She slowed as she approached Clarke’s lips, but Clarke closed the distance eagerly.

It was everything Clarke had wanted it to be. Lexa moved uncertainly at first, in a way that Clarke thought confirmed how Lexa really hadn’t been with anyone for eight years. But the softness, the sincerity, the suppressed need finally coming to fruition, had Clarke’s grip on the outside world fading away.

She untangled her fingers from Lexa’s hand and lifted them to the back of Lexa’s neck, pulling her even closer. Lexa responded in kind, placing her hand on Clarke’s knee and twisting her body to greet her.

When Lexa paused their kiss, brushing her nose against Clarke’s and shifting to the other side, Clarke realized how much she needed this. Not just kissing anyone, not just feeling the heat of anyone’s body against hers, but how much she needed Lexa. How they had grown to depend on each other over these past few months for more than just work. Clarke needed her in her life. But right now, she needed to know what made Lexa happy, what would please her, what would make her moan.

When Lexa reunited their lips again, Clarke met her eagerly, their kiss deepening, Clarke’s tongue gliding along Lexa’s lower lip--full, plump, and filling Clarke with more longing than she thought possible. Lexa’ groan into her mouth sent a pulse travelling down between her legs that almost took her breath away. Clarke shifted on top of her, feeling herself losing control and loving it.

Breaking away from their kiss, Lexa pulled back just to gaze at her with a look that, in the last rays of the sun dipping below the horizon, seemed almost reverent to Clarke.

Clarke forced herself to pause, stroking the back of Lexa’s neck, running her fingers through the fine hairs beneath her braid. “Is this alright?” she asked. She needed to know that Lexa wanted this too. She didn’t know how she would survive if she didn’t, but she needed to make sure that, even after all of this, that Clarke wasn’t alone in what she felt.

“This wasn’t why I brought you out here,” Lexa said, out of breath, “but I don’t want to stop.”

Crouching above her, Clarke smirked down at her. “Sure it wasn’t.”

She leaned down again and took Lexa’s lips in her own, and it didn’t take long for it to become just as heated as before. Lexa’s kisses formed a dichotomy to the Lexa that Clarke had grown to know: soft, despite Lexa’s intensity; passionate, despite Lexa’s careful planning; vulnerable, despite Lexa’s strength and confidence. But as they continued, Clarke realized that she could be all these things, all at once, and Clarke’s admiration for her only grew.

But despite how much heat was coursing through Clarke’s body from finally being able to kiss Lexa--Clarke was beginning to realize how long she had been wanting to do this--she felt each gust of the wind like arrows of ice through her body. And even though Lexa was more securely under the blanket than she was, Clarke didn’t know if the shivers running through her body were from her excitement for Clarke… or just from how really fucking cold it was getting.

Clarke broke away from Lexa and tried to remember every detail: Lexa’s eyes, so full of hope and something else (Clarke thought it was desire); her lips, already swollen from Clarke’s enthusiasm; the way her body curled under her, trying to be closer to her, as if being separated even a little was unacceptable.

But then Clarke saw it, an unmistakeable shiver, and one ran through Clarke, too.

Running her hand along Lexa’s cheek, Clarke could feel how cold her fingers were in comparison. “It’s freezing out here.”

Lexa was still breathing hard. “A little.” Her gaze fell down Clarke’s body. It ignited Clarke’s desire to kiss her all over again.

“The cabin’s pretty warm, though. Or warmer, at least.” Clarke scrunched up her nose. “You really ought to have someone look at the heater, actually. It’s pretty bad.”

But Lexa just looked at her under her eyelashes, and Clarke’s stomach dropped. “We won’t be needing it much tonight.” She looked at Clarke expectantly. “If that’s what you want.”

Clarke answered her with another kiss, this one more searing than the last. When they separated, breathing heavy, Clarke grinned at her. “I think we can make that work.”

“Then what are we still doing here?” Lexa said, biting her lip in a way that Clarke would never had expected from her, but that she loved.

It didn’t matter how many stars were out, or how magnificent the crescent moon looked as it marched its way across the sky. They were back in the cab of the truck and speeding their way home in less than a minute.

**********

“Lexa.”

The other woman hummed drowsily but otherwise made no response. She was laying face-down on the bed, her shoulders and back marvelously exposed, the black circles and lines of her tattoo prominently on display. Clarke had already traced them all last night, but it didn’t stop her fingers from migrating back there, idly moving from one circle to the next. Lexa had explained what it meant to her--the circles each representing the people who mattered most in her life, bound together by an intricate pattern of lines and hooks--but Clarke couldn’t help but be fascinated by it. She had always been a sucker for tattoos, and when they were attached to someone as inspiring as Lexa, well…

Clarke repositioned her hand to stroke her entire palm along the smooth skin of Lexa’s back. The muscles, although relaxed, were still prominent under her touch. “Lexa…” she cooed again, a little more urgently.

A groan, as Lexa shifted her cheek against the pillow. Her tangle of wavy hair was everywhere. Clarke had spent a long time running her hands through it last night, which had Lexa practically purring against her. From what Clarke could tell, Lexa loved her touch, anywhere, everywhere.

(And last night, her touch had been everywhere .)

Clarke felt her cheeks flush at the thought. Funny, considering what she and Lexa had done the night before. Although Clarke was more than experienced at sex, this had been different. It had somehow seemed more significant. She could still see how Lexa had looked up at her from her place sitting on the edge of the bed last night, eyes full of questions, practically begging Clarke to join her on the bed but also questioning whether that’s really what she wanted to do.

At first, Lexa had been hesitant. Clarke thought that maybe she still wasn’t sure, or still couldn’t believe, that Clarke would want to be with her. Which was completely foolish, considering how far into Lexa’s mouth Clarke’s tongue was and where her hands were roaming. But Clarke tried to be as gentle and patient as she could manage. Lexa, after all, hadn’t been with anyone for years.  

But Clarke didn’t think she was rusty at all, because fuck . It had been good. And based on how Lexa had cried out last night, Clarke didn’t think she was the only one who thought so.

Clarke pressed herself against Lexa’s back, and that elicited a stronger response than she had received so far. Lexa leaned back into her, fitting against Clarke’s body as if she were made for it. Clarke wrapped her arm around her and held her hand against the tight muscles of Lexa’s stomach. She was still amazed at them (and how they had looked as Lexa had been crouched over her last night, hair pouring across her shoulders, lips roaming across her body…)

“Lexa, we need to get up,” Clarke said, even though she would be more than content to lay there for the rest of the day, if they could get away with it. But the ranch didn’t stop running, just because they had decided to have sex last night.

But Lexa just rested even more heavily against her. “No. I’m the boss, and what I say goes.” Her voice was rough with sleep. “And I say we’re staying in bed.”

That brought a smile to Clarke’s lips. She had suspected it before, but now she knew that Lexa was really needy in the morning. She rested her chin against Lexa’s shoulder. “But what about all those silly cows you care so much about?”

“That I care about?” Lexa still hadn’t bothered opening her eyes, which only made her cuter first thing in the morning. “You’re the one who’s naming them.”

“Just the one.” Clarke kissed her shoulder. “The cutest one. But I can name the rest, too. Since you care so much about them.”

Lexa sighed against her, finally opening her eyes that were still hooded with sleep. She shifted to her back and looked up from the pillows at Clarke, a slow smile spreading across her face. It was like she finally, truly realized where she was, and who was with her. “Good morning, Clarke.”

Clarke couldn’t help but return the smile in kind. “Good morning, Lexa. How did you sleep?”

Lexa’s gaze flickered lower meaningfully. “I don’t remember there being much sleeping.”

“Ohhh, poor Lexa. I wonder what could have caused that,” Clarke said, quickly discovering that teasing Lexa was one of her favorite activities.

She felt herself gravitating toward Lexa’s lips, even though she had spent a good portion of last night kissing them. But unlike the night before, when their kisses had been blazing and desperate, this time their lips moved slowly, lazily, as if there truly was nothing else to do that day except lay in bed and enjoy each other. With Lexa’s arm now wrapped around her bare waist, Clarke really didn’t want to be anywhere else.

A few minutes later, when they were both laying on their sides, sheets and blankets wrapped cozily around their shoulders, sunlight now streaming in through the window and illuminating the lighter streaks in Lexa’s hair, Clarke was struck again by just how beautiful Lexa was. She knew that everything was fresh and new and exciting, so she shouldn’t trust her feelings on this too much, but she had never been so grateful to wake up next to someone in her life. And as encouraging as Lexa’s contented smile was, she wondered if Lexa felt the same way.

“So… we had sex last night,” Clarke said, unable to completely hide the nervousness in her voice.

“A few times,” Lexa said with satisfaction. Whatever worry Clarke was feeling, Lexa seemed to be immune.

When Lexa began tracing her fingers across Clarke’s hip under the sheets, Clarke was tempted to give up this train of thought and just let herself enjoy the moment. But she couldn’t let the matter rest. “From what you’ve told me, you don’t exactly make a habit of sleeping with your temporary hires.” Lexa’s fingers paused against her for a long moment before resuming. “So I’m wondering… are we going to be OK? Does this change anything?”

Lexa frowned thoughtfully as she considered. “I don’t think it needs to change anything. I still respect you as my employee, and we’ll still get the work done. But…” Lexa paused, as she scooped her hand behind Clarke’s back and pulled her toward herself. Not for the first time, Clarke felt a thrill pass through her at Lexa’s strength. “We’re not going to get much work done this morning.”

Their bodies now flush together, Clarke was finding it hard to focus on her words, or to be able to produce any kind of coherent thought of her own. Her heartbeat quickened even more, as Lexa’s knee settled between her legs and pushed against her. But Clarke decided that, luckily, words were no longer necessary. She took Lexa’s lips in her own, greedily, whatever concerns she may have had slipping away.

**********

The cattle were healthy. Daenerys was growing stronger than ever. And so was Lexa, evidently, as she had elected to show off one day by throwing Clarke into bed as easily as a hay bale into the back of the truck. (And the feats of endurance she had displayed after that were even more appreciated by Clarke.)

But as autumn’s final crisp, sunny days gave way to a pall of leaden gray clouds carried by a frigid, howling wind, Clarke should have known that good things were never meant to last.

The blizzard that hit was unlike anything Clarke had ever seen: swirling vortices of snow, thick enough to form a continuous sheet of white in every direction; hurricane-force winds that made the cabin shudder in protest; freezing cold temperatures that threatened frostbite to any exposed area of skin.

There was no way that they could leave the cabin. But unlike the last few weeks, when they had voluntarily stayed in bed for hours on end, it now felt like a prison. Because while Lexa’s room may have been cozy, , they knew that the herd was out there with nothing more than the fur on their backs to stop the worst of the wind and ice.

The longer the snow fell, the more worried Lexa became. And as Clarke discovered, a worried Lexa was not a fun Lexa.

She paced back and forth in the freezing living room (they kept the space heater in the bedroom to keep it at a temperature conducive to human survival), sparing a glance out the window every couple of minutes, as the weather would have changed in that span of time. If anything, it was only snowing harder than it had been before.

“It wasn’t supposed to be this bad,” Lexa muttered, mostly to herself, as far as Clarke could tell. “They only forecast a half foot, but this is two at least…”

Wearing her thickest sweater and sweatpants, Clarke sat at the kitchen table and tried to stop the gnawing worry in her gut. “I know,” Clarke lied. She had been… distracted (by Lexa) the last couple of weeks and hadn’t been keeping an eye on the weather report at all. “But there’s nothing we can do about it right now.”

“I should have corralled them back to the barn.” Lexa finally stopped her pacing, instead grabbing the window ledge and staring out at the too-bright snow that continued to blow sideways across the property. “But out there, in this… they’re not going to survive. Not all of them.”

“You don’t know that.” Clarke rose from the chair and approached Lexa, wrapping her arms around her middle and placing her chin on Lexa’s shoulder. “All we can do is hang tight, until the storm slows at least. We’ll check on them as soon as it’s safe and bring them back here if we have to. There’s no use worrying about it until we can do something.”

But Lexa just sagged in Clarke’s arms. She spoke so quietly that Clarke had to strain to understand her. “What if we lose everything, Clarke? Just because of a bad forecast? Just because I wasn’t cautious enough?”

Lexa had said we . If we lose everything. Clarke wrapped her arms around her tighter. “That’s not going to happen.”

“What will I tell my parents when I see them again?”

Lexa felt so small in her arms, huddled now against Clarke and shoulders hunched. Clarke noted how resolutely Lexa believed that she would be reunited with her parents one day. In the last few weeks, Clarke had seen Lexa vulnerable and trusting, but that didn’t prepare her for this.

“You’re going to tell them how proud of you they should be, because it wasn’t always easy, and things didn’t always work out how you wanted them to. But you persevered and did everything you possibly could to keep their legacy alive.”

They stood there for a long time, and Clarke could practically hear the gears turning inside Lexa’s head. And despite Clarke feeling like she had grown to know Lexa pretty well over the last several months, Lexa’s expression was now so blank as to be unreadable.

They made it out on horseback the next day, and it was the most miserable ride of Clarke’s life. It was still snowing, lightly now, but the air was bitterly cold and the horse’s breath followed them like fog. Their pace was glacial, as one horse had to constantly break trail. Clarke had no idea how Lexa kept her bearings: the hills that Clarke had grown to know over the spring and summer were now a shifting landscape of drifting snow.

But as much as Clarke thought that Lexa’s worrying had prepared her for the worst, she wasn’t ready for what they found.

The dark fur of the cattle still standing was in stark contrast to the snow. They huddled behind a stand of trees that blocked some of the wind, but there weren’t nearly enough of them. Clarke counted through them as quickly as she could. They had over one hundred cattle, the calves nearly fully-grown and ready for market, but now… Clarke could only count half that number.

Wordlessly, Lexa dismounted beside her and trudged a short distance through snow. She sank to her knees and began digging into the snow. A glimpse of black fur became visible. Clarke could only watch as Lexa looked up to the sky, eyes wet.

The other cattle were still here, but they had fallen, succumbed to the cold, and been buried by drifts of snow.

It was a joyless task, counting the remaining cattle. They found that most of the cows had survived, but only twenty calves remained. And even though Clarke knew it was childish, she couldn’t help but cry out with relief when she saw Daenerys, safe in the middle of the herd and sheltered from the cold by the other cattle around her. But Daenerys’ mother was nowhere to be seen.

With snow drifts reaching up to the cattle’s chests, the herd wouldn’t be able to make the journey back to the barn. But Clarke and Lexa did what they could to help them survive until some of the snow melted or blew away. They doubled back to the ranch, gathered as many hay bales as they could, and trudged back to the herd. The cattle ate as if they were half-starved, which was true--although Galloways were renowned for their ability to dig through snow to reach grass, even they couldn’t dig through three feet of snow.

When they finally returned to the cabin, Clarke sank into a chair and thought that she might never move again. She was too exhausted and heartbroken to do anything but just sit there. But Lexa immediately grabbed the box of ranch financial records and spread them across the kitchen table. Clarke watched her work for a while, asked her if she could help, offered to make her dinner or at least a cup of tea, but Lexa refused everything.

Finally, Clarke went to bed by herself, the first time in weeks. With the space heater still in Lexa’s room, she went there. The emptiness of the sheets beside her, and the lack of warmth, of vanilla scent, of unruly brown hair tickling her face, of strong, slender fingers tracing along her arms and chest, were enough to keep Clarke tossing and turning all night. And every time that Clarke opened her eyes, the light from the kitchen still shone through the crack in the door, and the shuffle of papers and exasperated sighs revealed that Lexa was still hard at work.

Clarke woke the next morning--or rather, just decided to stop trying to sleep--the worry and lack of rest making her body stiff. But when she stumbled out of Lexa’s bedroom, she imagined that Lexa couldn’t feel any better than she did.

Lexa was still seated at the kitchen table, but most of the financial records were put away in the box beside the table now. Only one paper, covered in calculations, was in front of Lexa now.

Clarke sat across from her, staring at the single paper on the table and then back to Lexa.

Lexa’s eyes were bloodshot, tired, but resolute, as she folded her hands on top of the paper and looked her square in the eye. Clarke felt her blood run cold.

“Clarke, I’m afraid I have to let you go.”

Chapter Text

Clarke pinned Lexa with tired, bloodshot eyes. “What did you just say?” she asked, voice low and somehow dangerous.

The knot that had taken up residence in Lexa’s stomach twisted in on itself. She rose to her feet and forced herself to stand up straight under Clarke’s scrutiny, even as a trickle of sweat ran down her back despite the cold in the cabin. She hadn’t meant for this to happen, hadn’t mean for her ranch to fall apart and her heart to fall for Clarke.

“I’m sorry, Clarke,” she offered, knowing that the apology sounded hollow even in her own ears. “But there’s no other way.”

“Like hell you’re sorry,” Clarke said with fire, fury seeming to overcome her fatigue. She approached Lexa suddenly, her hands balling into fists. “How dare you. After everything I’ve done for this ranch. After everything we’ve--” Clarke cut herself off, betrayal stinging in her eyes.

But Lexa could complete the thought on her own. After everything we’ve become to each other. After all the challenges we’ve faced together and overcome. After we had, slowly, over the days and weeks and months, fallen in love…

Lexa swallowed past the lump in her throat, feeling that familiar panic rising up again. She couldn’t stand seeing Clarke this way, but she didn’t have any other choice. She willed her voice to be steady as she stared back at Clarke as calmly as she could. “I can’t afford to pay you, Clarke. And if I can’t pay you, then I don’t see any alternative to terminating your contract, which included a clause about financial hardship.”

Blinking back tears, Clarke let loose a bitter laugh. “I can’t believe you’re discussing the legalities of firing me right now.” Clarke stood there, visibly shaking. Her voice quivered with anger and hurt, as as her glare shot into Lexa. “But most of all,” she said, a finality to her words, “I can’t believe I had feelings for you.”

Lexa couldn’t move. Couldn’t breathe. She could only watch helplessly as Clarke stormed past her. She heard the jingle of keys and the opening and slamming of the door behind her, the starting of the truck and the crackle of gravel, as if it were all happening in some other world. She sunk down onto her heels and was completely unprepared for the sob that engulfed her.

**********

The entire day passed, and Clarke still hadn’t returned. That night, Lexa lay in bed and stared at the ceiling like she suspected she would do all night, when she finally heard the truck pulling into the gravel driveway. She heard uncertain, stumbling steps, slow at first, then rushing, and a long series of retches in the bathroom.

Lexa flung her covers away from herself and ran to the closed bathroom door. She knocked,  guilt washing over her. “Clarke?”

“Fuck you, Lexa!” Clarke fell over her words, drunk. “Don’t pretend like you care about me now.”


Lexa rested her head against the door, knowing that she had caused all of this. If Clarke had gotten drunk in Polis because of what she had done to her… it was a miracle that she had managed to drive all the way back to the ranch without crashing. “Do you need anything? Some water?” she murmured just loudly enough for Clarke to hear on the other side of the door.

“What part of ‘fuck you’ don’t you understand?” Clarke growled at her, even as Lexa heard her vomit again.

Lexa sighed, knowing there was nothing she could do right then. She went to the kitchen, placed a glass of water on the table for Clarke, and returned to her room. Eventually, she heard Clarke stumble to her own room, then silence, as she imagined Clarke passed out in seconds.

Letting out a shaky breath, Lexa hugged her knees to herself. She wondered how she was going to survive this.

**********

Lexa didn’t know if it was kind or cruel that her dreaming subconscious reminded her about what it felt like to wake up in Clarke’s arms. She could feel how perfectly her body tucked up against Clarke’s, how Clarke’s warm breath tickled the tiny hairs on the back of her neck.

She remembered, too, that lazy evening the week before when she had found herself spilling stories from her childhood. Clarke had kissed the back of her shoulder lazily, as Lexa had told her about how she used to take her horse and disappear into the grassland for days at a time. The first time, her parents had been worried sick and scolded her when she returned, but after the second time, they accepted that she could take care of herself and only told her to be careful.

And that night, Lexa listened to Clarke’s stories, too. About Bobo, the love of her life, a golden retriever who accompanied Clarke on all of her adventures around the neighborhood when she was a kid. About how she and Raven had met during a college frat party keg stand and had been best friends ever since. But Clarke also shared how worried she was about getting accepted to a veterinary program and whether her mom would ever forgive her for leaving without a word earlier that year.

Lexa had tried to reassure her that Clarke was too smart not to get accepted into a program, and that her mother would be crazy not to understand why Clarke had left like she had. But now, even in her dreams, Lexa’s words turned to ash in her mouth, as she realized that she was just another item in Clarke’s list of anxieties.

When Lexa woke that morning, the cold bedsheets were at odds with what she kept telling herself. She had done the right thing. She had done what needed to be done to save the ranch. After losing so many cows and calves, this was the only way to save the ranch and her parent’s legacy.

(But wouldn’t they want her to be happy? Wouldn’t they say that was more important than anything? And could Lexa be happy without Clarke?)

But it didn’t matter. Clarke wouldn’t stay on the ranch anyway. She was already set to leave next spring. And Lexa couldn’t blame her--she was destined for greater things than being tied to the land like Lexa was. It was exactly like what had happened with Costia. She had needed more in her life than grass and fences, too.

So really, wasn’t Lexa just accelerating the inevitable?

**********

She had intended for Clarke to leave the ranch as soon as she could, but there was one small hitch in that plan: Clarke’s flat tire.

Her car had become a permanent fixture next to the barn, to the point that Lexa had barely looked at it for the past several months. But that didn’t change the fact that, ever since Clarke had rolled onto the ranch back in April, the rear driver’s side tire was completely unserviceable. Even without the tire, the snow that had drifted up and over the car would take hours of shoveling to remove.

Needless to say, Clarke wasn’t going anywhere.

What was worse, the tire shop in Polis had to special order the specific type of tire that Clarke needed, and they only got a shipment in once a week. It would be another five days until Clarke would be able to leave unless she bought four all new tires. But from what Clarke had told her about her finances, Lexa didn’t think she would be able to do that. And considering the financial crisis the ranch was in, Lexa couldn’t afford to help her.

So Clarke was staying. In the cabin. Seething. For another five days.

Lexa wondered when Clarke’s anger would spill over again.

**********

Anya didn’t bother knocking. She usually didn’t, but this time, with everything else going on, Lexa glared at her over her evening cup of tea.

Anya shook off the snowflakes from her coat over the doormat. “You’re welcome, by the way.”

Lexa just cocked an eyebrow. “For…?”

“Clarke’s tire, obviously.”

Lexa rose up from the table all at once, nearly knocking her tea over. Clarke was holed up in her room, per usual, but the walls and doors were too thin. “Outside. Now,” she growled.

Slipping on her thickest jacket, Lexa took Anya by the elbow and led her out onto the porch. The snow was falling thick again, with some of it drifting past the railing and onto the porch itself. It was bitterly cold, as it had been for weeks, and clouds of condensation escaped when they breathed.

Lexa crossed her arms, almost too furious to speak. “What did you do?”

Anya rolled her eyes at her. “Oh please. I’m doing you a favor. I told the auto shop to ‘misplace’ the tire for a few more days. Because this has got to be your most idiotic, foolish, asinine decision--”

“But it is my decision. On my ranch. And you had no right to interfere.” She could feel herself heating up, despite the cold. “You need to respect my decision and take back whatever deal you made to keep Clarke here.”

“No. You need to listen to me.” Anya stepped into her space, and even though they were the same height, Anya’s confidence always made her seem taller. “You’re being an idiot. Clarke is the best thing that has happened to this ranch in years, and you’re going to let her go just because of a bad storm?”

“It wasn’t just a bad storm, Anya. Half of my herd died.”

“And the rest of them will die if you get rid of her. You need the extra help around here, especially in winter. And you know how busy I get as soon the the new year starts. I’ll barely be able to help.”

“I can handle it.” Lexa didn’t know how, but she would. She had to.

“Bullshit,” Anya retorted, drawing a stern look from Lexa. “You know you can’t do it on your own. And--” Anya paused dramatically. “I don’t know if you guys were just fucking or dating or what, but she has got to be pissed at you.”

Lexa gestured back to Anya’s truck. “Listen, I appreciate your concern, but that is none of your fucking business.” The expletive felt foreign on her tongue, and it made her uncomfortable to say it.

But rather than move, Anya stood her ground and folded her arms. “Actually, it is my fucking business, because you’re my best friend. And when you’re making stupid decisions, for your ranch and for yourself, it’s my job to call you out.”

Lexa hated the nagging doubt that was taking root in her, but she didn’t have to stand out in the freezing cold and be criticized. She turned back toward the front door. “Good night, Anya,” she said dismissively.

But Anya stopped her with a hand. “Just tell me you’ll think about it,” she said, more gently than before.

Lexa paused and shot Anya a side glance. “What do you think I have been doing? I can’t get her--or any of it--out of my head.”

Gratefully, Anya didn’t follow her into the cabin. Lexa didn’t bother finishing her tea or even doing the dishes but just collapsed into bed. She listened as Anya started up her truck and drove away. But once the quiet settled onto the ranch once again, Lexa thought that she heard something from inside the cabin.

Crying.

But it stopped a minute later and had been so soft to begin with that Lexa wondered if she had heard it at all.

**********

Lexa looked up in surprise from her simple breakfast of toast when she heard Clarke’s bedroom door open. For the last few days, it seemed that Clarke tried her best to avoid Lexa in the cabin at all times. It probably wasn’t that hard, since Lexa was outside most of the day and often came up with reasons to drive into town during the evening. So to actually see Clarke, or rather, for Clarke to let herself be seen, was unusual.

But despite this being the first time they had seen each other in days, Clarke didn’t even look at her. Her steps were heavy, her hair loose and sleep-mussed. Lexa remembered with a pang how she had brushed that hair away from Clarke’s sleeping face not too long ago, how the golden strands had twisted around her fingers. Clarke walked past her to the bathroom and closed the door sharply behind her.

Lexa picked up the piece of toast from her plate, but she had lost her appetite. Every time that she saw her, Clarke seemed to alternate between rage and apathy, with little in between. Lexa knew that she deserved Clarke’s anger, but she also wanted what was best for her ranch and for Clarke… but those two goals were mutually exclusive.

Still, they hadn’t spoken since that night when Clarke had come back drunk, and the tension between them had built into this terrible, brooding silence. Something had to give.  

Clarke came out of the bathroom and made to hurry back to her room, but Lexa couldn’t let that happen.

“Clarke.” Lexa’s voice shattered the silence and whatever illusion of peace that had existed between them.

Clarke stopped in her tracks, her back to Lexa. “I have nothing to say to you,” she muttered. It was cold, disjointed.  

“Don’t you?” Lexa rose from the table and crossed the room, standing at Clarke’s side. Clarke still didn’t turn to look at her and just stared ahead at her bedroom door as if Lexa wasn’t even there.

The seconds dragged on, and Clarke remained silent.

Lexa cleared her throat and crossed her hands in front of herself. It was an old, comfortable stance for her that helped give her confidence. And she needed all the help she could get right now. “I heard from the mechanic that your car will be available in a few more days. Will you be staying here at all after your car is repaired?”

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Clarke blurted. She seemed disappointed in herself, that she hadn’t been able to maintain her silence. She directed her steely gaze to Lexa. “Why would I stay here any longer than I have to. You fired me,” she spat out.

Lexa swallowed. She was amazed at how quickly the embers of Clarke’s anger had reignited into the fire she now saw. She was grateful that Clarke was speaking to her, even if it seemed that Clarke was about to yell at her again at any moment. Lexa could handle that, if she had to. But what she couldn’t handle was Clarke bottling all of this inside.

“I mean in town,” Lexa clarified, calmly. “Will you find another job here?”

Clarke looked away again, shaking her head slightly. She took another step toward her bedroom, but Lexa stepped forward and blocked the doorway with her arm. That earned her a threatening glare from Clarke, which Lexa knew she deserved. But she couldn’t let Clarke leave the ranch with this wound still festering.

She couldn’t wake up one morning to find that Clarke had left her without saying goodbye.

She lowered her arm from the doorway. “Where will you go?”

Clarke scoffed at her, and Lexa pretended like it didn’t hurt. “What do you care? As long as I’m not here, you should be happy. But maybe I’ll ask around and find one of those mega cattle ranches to work at, or one where they keep the calves chained up in those tiny plastic houses. At least they would respect me as an employee.”

Lexa fought to regain composure, as Clarke had said multiple times how much she despised those kinds of farms. And Lexa did too, for how they disrespected their cattle and made her ranch harder and harder to run profitably. “You can do whatever you want,” she said steadily.

“Really?” Clarke laughed bitterly, and Lexa knew she hadn’t been able to cover her dislike of the idea as well as she had wanted. “You’re telling me that if I started working for your rivals, the ones that are driving your business into the ground, that you wouldn’t be bothered at all?”

Lexa felt herself grinding her teeth, and she stopped with an effort. Clarke was far too good at this, far too good at saying the exact thing to get at her. Maybe it had been better that they hadn’t spoken for so long. “I have no control over what you do now,” Lexa managed to say almost as flatly as she wanted to.

“Goddammit, Lexa,” Clarke vented, crossing her arms and uncrossing them just as quickly. “You’re the worst liar in the world. I don’t expect you to admit that you fucked up, but at least--”

“What do you want me to say?” Lexa spat out, her anger getting the better of her for once. The distance between them had closed, to the point that they were yelling practically in each other’s faces. “Do you want me to tell you that I regret what I did? That I owe you more than I owe the memory of my parents? That I would keep you employed, even though I would have to sell everything and start over with nothing?” Lexa’s mouth twisted with the bitter truth of it. She caught her breath and let herself calm down for a long moment. “I did what was right for my ranch. I thought that you, of all people, would understand that.” Lexa paused, and even though Clarke looked on at her with no more understanding than before, she continued, softer than before. “But I am sorry that I hurt you.”

Clarke shook her head at her, expression as hard as ever. “Oh. As long as you’re sorry,” she said with obvious sarcasm. “ I guess we’re all good.”

Lexa felt more drained than she ever had before in her life. “Mockery is not the product of a strong mind, Clarke,” she said.

“Oh, it isn’t now?” Clarke’s sarcastic tone only strengthened. “Then tell me, what is the product of a strong mind? Deciding to fuck your employee and then fire her a few days later?”

Lexa felt that jab like a punch in the gut. “No. It’s Making the right choice, even when it hurts. Even when it hurts those you care about.”

“Right, you care about me” Clarke said with a bitter laugh. “You have a funny way of showing it.”

Lexa looked hard at her. “And forcing someone to lose what matters most to them is not how I would show it.”

That slowed Clarke down at least. Her cheeks reddened slightly, but the angry set to her mouth remained. Her voice quietted. “You know what bothers me the most? You didn’t even talk to me about it. You looked at your records and your budgets and decided all of this on your own. You didn’t ask if I had any ideas. You just announced that this was the way it was going to be, and that was it.”

“There is no other way, Clarke.” Lexa had spent a sleepless night looking for another solution, but there had been none. “I wish there was.”

But Clarke just shook her head at her. “I thought you would have figured out by now that we made a pretty good team.”

She looked more disappointed than anything, and that hurt Lexa even worse. Clarke turned without another word and walked back to her room, closing the door behind herself. Lexa stood in the suddenly silent kitchen, her stomach a roiling pit of rage and shame. She grabbed her coat and hat and left the cabin, hoping to leave her confusion behind as well.

For hours, Lexa chopped a pile of wood in the barn that she didn’t even know what to do with. When her back ached with the effort, she saddled her horse and headed out into the fields, following her previous path through the knee-deep snow. The herd was huddled together in the cold, a dark anomaly on the endless hills of white.

She sighed in relief when she spotted Daenerys. Although another cow had adopted her, but Lexa knew that the calf wasn’t getting the same amount of attention and milk that she had been before. She took the bottle of milk out of her saddlebag and knelt down beside calf, encouraging it to drink. It didn’t take much effort before the calf began drinking greedily.

Soon enough, Daenerys would be the last piece of Clarke she would have left. And before long, Lexa would sell Daenerys to the feedlot with the other calves, and even that piece would be lost.




“Daenerys,” Lexa said, scratching behind her ear as she fed. It was the first time she had ever addressed her by name. The calf leaned into the touch. “I think I fucked up. I don’t know what to do.”

But Daenerys just snorted in response, sending a cloud of vapor into the air between them. If she knew what Lexa should do, she kept it to himself.

**********

Maybe it was just that they had cleared some of the bad air between them, but Clarke didn’t stay locked up in her room after that. Although she was letting Lexa see her, she was not letting Lexa speak to her, or even look at her. Lexa didn’t think she was imagining how Clarke banged her plate onto the counter, or slammed doors, or generally made every small movement somehow angry.

But still, she wasn’t avoiding her anymore. And while Lexa knew that Clarke still hated her--and rightfully so--she couldn’t help but feel a sense of relief.

Because as furious as Clarke was, she was still Clarke . She still made herself breakfasts, but now Lexa now didn’t get to share them and the smell of them had her almost salivating all over the kitchen table. Clarke still walked around the chilly cabin with a blanket wrapped around her shoulders, looking like a country version of a superhero. And even though her eyes always seemed tired now, Lexa could remember how they had danced before when Lexa had made her laugh, and how it felt for Clarke’s focus to shift downward to their lips before they had kissed.

Lexa had never blamed herself for anything else more in her life, even if it had been necessary. Even if, given a chance to go back and make a different choice, Lexa wouldn’t change anything.

Winter had tightened its icy grip around the ranch, and every trip outdoors required suiting up for battle against the elements. The snow that had already fallen was likely to stick around until the end of the season, with more accumulating sporadically through spring. The wind howled constantly now and carried sharp needles of ice that stung any exposed area of skin.

And most critically, winter was when the calves would be weaned and sold. After so many calves were lost in the blizzard, it was even more critical that the remaining calves were as heavy as possible and able to gain a good price. But getting the calves weaned and then to market without help would not be an easy task.

Corralling the cattle by herself was manageable without snow, but with it, it became a day-long process to get the calves separated from their mothers and back to the barn for weaning. Some of the cows protested, seeing their calves being taken away from them, but Lexa closed the gate behind her and let the wind capture their cries.

About halfway back to the barn, Lexa knew something was wrong. The calves were pawing at the snow and stopping in place despite Lexa’s attempts to keep pushing them forward. Their eyes were so wide that the whites were clearly visible all around the pupil. They crowded around each other and seemed on the verge of bolting, even if half of them would break their legs in the process.

Lexa stayed on her horse and turned in place, looking for the threat.

There.

The wolf was alone, so skinny that its ribs protruded through its thin, mangy fur. It must have been separated from its pack, because it was out here alone and obviously very hungry.

And it was growling, teeth bared, mouth foaming, stalking straight for Daenerys.

Lexa tried to gallop her horse through the snow, but the snow made everything slow and awkward. She did a quick check of her saddle, but she hadn’t taken anything that could be improvised into a weapon with her.

She didn’t even wait for her horse to stop before leaping out of the saddle and rolling in the snow between the wolf and Daenerys. She came to her feet and crouched, the snow hitting halfway up her calves. She felt so foolish standing there with nothing, not even a stick, let alone the rifle that she should have brought with her…. But what were the chances that a lone wolf would attack the herd in the middle of the winter?

The wolf circled, growling. Lexa decided that this wolf must have been on the verge of starving to determine that taking her on to get to the calves was worth it, but a desperate wolf could be a dangerous wolf.

And faster than she thought was possible, the wolf covered the distance between them in a single running leap. Lexa made to move out of the way, but her feet stuck in the snow for a moment too long. She cried out in pain as the wolf’s fangs sank into her calf, but Lexa’s fist was just a second behind. Her knuckles caught the wolf in the side of its head once, twice, three times, before the wolf broke away from her, its teeth slicing through her pants and her flesh as it pulled away.

Her blood shone bright red on the snow as the wolf stumbled away and collapsed a short distance away. But the attack was still too much for the calves to handle, and they bolted away from Lexa in all directions.

Lexa’s leg suddenly couldn’t support her weight. She fell to her knees, keeping an eye on the wolf to make sure it stayed where it was, and examined her wound. Her pants flapped around her leg uselessly, allowing the cold wind to hit her skin, and she shivered immediately. Blood oozed down her leg from the deep gouges left by the wolf teeth where it had clamped down and torn. Lexa ripped off a strip from her tattered pants and wrapped it around her leg, knotting it tightly. It would slow the flow of blood, at least.

Lexa steadied herself with a hand on her knee and pushed back up to her feet with difficulty. Her left leg shook with the effort of supporting her weight. And when Lexa looked around herself…

Her horse had bolted with the cattle.

Shit.

But Lexa heard a snort and turned around. Daenerys, thick black fur scattered with tiny ice crystals, stared at her curiously as she chewed the cud. The calf approached her, mooing softly, and pressed her head into Lexa’s arm.

Tears filled Lexa’s eyes against her will, and she blamed it on the pain in her leg, or the nerves, or maybe the blood loss. But she lifted her other arm and scratched behind Daenerys’ ear, and the calf nuzzled her arm even more.

The wolf was still unmoving behind her, her horse was God knew where, her pants were soaked from the snow and from the blood, and she was shivering uncontrollably. She had to get back to the ranch, and fast, if she was going to avoid freezing to death.

Lexa took one step forward on her injured leg and would have fallen into the snow again, if not for Daenerys beside her supporting her weight. She grabbed a handful of her fur on the back of her neck and tried again. At least this time, knowing how much it would hurt, she was able to stay upright and grimace through the pain. Daenerys trudged along beside her, oblivious to how strange it was to have her handler hanging onto her for dear life.

Even through the pain and the cold, Lexa marveled that this one calf had stayed with her, after the rest of them and even her horse had run away. No normal calf would have done that.


But Daenerys was no normal calf. Lexa knew it was all because of Clarke.

She wondered if she would have the chance to thank Clarke for that.

The orange and pink hues that covered the western horizon in front of her only served to prove how little time she had left, but Lexa knew where she was, even with snow covering every hillslope. She still had almost an hour’s horseback ride back to the cabin, and on foot? It would take until early morning.

She knew she didn’t have that much time.

Lexa stumbled, and Daenerys turned her head and snorted at how tightly Lexa held her fur. Lexa pulled herself back to her feet, but she knew she couldn’t keep going like this. She had lost too much blood, and she might pass out if she loses much more.

She stopped, trying to assess her options, but her mind was so foggy. She teetered on her feet, and Daenerys was back at her side and laid down beside her in the snow. Lexa half knelt, half fell down with her and nestled as closely to her furry stomach as she could. Daenerys’ body sheltered her from the worst of the wind, but Lexa could already feel the cold seeping into her. She elevated her leg on top of one of Daenerys’ and leaned back into the thick fur.

She was so tired, and the sky was already darkening, and the snow was melting around her and Daenerys and soaking into her jacket, but she couldn’t bring herself to care…

Her eyes drooped, and Lexa fought at first. She had to stay awake. Falling asleep out there was the surest way for her to never wake up again. But her eyelids were so heavy, and Daenerys was so warm around her, and the throbbing in her leg was lessening now…

Lexa couldn’t fight it for long.

**********

“Lexa!”

She cracked one eye open. It was harder than it should have been. It felt like ice on her eyelashes had frozen them shut. Or maybe she was just really tired.

“Lexa!”

The other eye came open too. A single spotlight in the distance broke through the darkness. Lexa had no idea what time it was, or what day it was, for that matter. Why was she out here in the pastures by herself at night? And why was her bed moving?

She realized then that it wasn’t a bed. Daenerys stood up next to her, and Lexa was faintly afraid that the calf might step on her. But Daenerys just rocked her head back and forth in excitement and ran through the snow away from Lexa and toward the spotlight. The wind hit her as soon as Daenerys left, but Lexa didn’t feel any different. It was just less comfortable without Daenerys acting as a big pillow behind her. She wanted her to come back, so she could go back to sleep.

But right before she closed her eyes again, the spotlight changed direction and pointed directly at her. How rude. She was trying to sleep.

“Oh my God, Lexa!” It was a nice voice. It was the exact voice Lexa wanted to hear when she was about to fall asleep.

The spotlight was turned off, thankfully. She heard a horse galloping, someone’s feet hitting the snow and crunching toward her. Lexa was surprised to recognize the person kneeling beside her, and how the night’s faint moonlight made her blonde hair almost shine in the darkness.

“Clarke?” Lexa coughed. She found her throat was very sore and dry. “What are you doing here? You should be sleeping. It’s late.”

Lexa felt a touch on her leg, and she recoiled against it. She couldn’t feel much, but that touch had set everything on fire.

“You’re bleeding. A lot.” There was a hint of panic in Clarke’s voice. “What happened?”

Lexa tried pointing behind her to where the wolf had been, but she only managed to lift her arm slightly before it fell back down to the snow again. Nothing in her body was working like she wanted it to right now.

Clarke opened up the satchel that she had brought with her and took out a proper bandage. “I left you out here alone for less than a week,” Clarke said, binding the bandage around her leg, tightly enough that Lexa grit her teeth. “And this is what you decide to do? Get mauled and fucking freeze to death?”

Even though her head was spinning, Lexa smiled up at her through drooping eyes. “I didn’t know you still cared, Clarke.”

The bandage tightened abruptly around Lexa’s leg and turned her smile into a grimace. Clarke stared down at her for a second, before taking her hand and pulling her to her feet. “We need to get you to the hospital.”

Lexa almost laughed at her. Even from the ranch, the hospital was still an hour away. And out here, from the pastures... she tried to remember how far she had ridden but couldn’t. Lexa stumbled through the snow, and even though she could barely feel her feet enough to know that they were stepping forward, she could quite distinctly feel Clarke’s arm around her waist. Lexa wanted to stop, to savor the feeling and wrap her own arm around Clarke as well, but Clarke pulled her ever onward until they reached her horse.

“Can you get up?” Clarke asked her, but Lexa’s response died as she sagged against the horse.

Clarke was hooking her foot into the stirrup and holding her by the waist and pushing upward with everything she had. It took Lexa several moments to realize what was going on, but when she did, she grabbed the pommel and managed to pull herself the rest of the way into the saddle. Clarke climbed up behind her, replacing her feet in the stirrups, and commanded the horse to move forward with just a touch. Lexa was so proud of how well she could maneuver her horse, even with a useless lump of weight in the front of the saddle….

Lexa sunk even further against her, and she felt Clarke’s arm wrap around her waist and tighten. She was held securely against her, and between being held by Clarke and the steady rocking of the horse, Lexa was sound asleep again in seconds.

**********

Lexa didn’t recognize anything around her: the strange bed with bars on either side of it, two thick blankets piled on top of her, motivational posters with scenes of nature and baby animals hung up on the walls….

But when she saw Clarke sitting in the chair beside her bed, her head resting on top of her arm, she relaxed. Things couldn’t be that bad, if Clarke was still there with her, right?

Lexa tried to remember what had happened. The image of a wolf leaping at her. Blood rushing down her leg. Clarke’s body pressed up against hers as they rode through the night.

Lexa sat up in bed to get a better look at her leg, but she found it was remarkably difficult to move at all. She struggled up onto her elbows but found that once she got there she didn’t have enough energy to stay. She collapsed back onto the pillows, which caused Clarke to stir beside her.

When Clarke finally lifted her head, she had a red indentation line running across her forehead from her arm and a little spot of drool at the corner of her mouth. If Lexa had to wake up in a hospital, barely able to move, she thought that having Clarke wake up beside her was the best case scenario. But most astonishingly, when Clarke looked at her, Lexa thought that concern was winning out over anger in her eyes.

“Hey.” Clarke leaned forward, resting her folded hands onto the sheets beside Lexa. Lexa resisted the urge to reach over and hold them in her hand. “How are you feeling?”

Lexa took a minute to assess that. “I think I must be on some intense pain killers right now.”

Clarke snorted a laugh, and for a moment, it felt like everything had returned back to normal. But Clarke’s smile faded, and the familiar expression of pained acceptance settled back in again. “Yeah, well, that’s what happens when you try to go bleed out and die of hypothermia.” Clarke paused, as if she were deciding something. “It’s like you couldn’t only choose one way to die. You had to go for both at once.”

Lexa couldn’t believe it. Clarke was joking with her again.... Even if it was about her dying, but still, it wasn’t animosity or aggressive sarcasm. Lexa tested her luck. “You know I don’t do anything half-assed. Even dying.”

Clarke graced her with a smile as she tucked a strand of golden hair behind her ear and looked away. “It was scary, finding you out there like that. You were laying there in the snow, not moving… I’m lucky I found you at all. You hadn’t told me where you were going.”

Lexa’s heart constricted, imagining how worried Clarke had been about her. On one hand, she hated putting Clarke through that, but on the other hand… Clarke had cared enough to leave the cabin after dark, on horseback, in the snow. It must have been dangerous for her, too.

“How did you even find me?” Lexa finally asked.

Clarke shot her a look. “You may find this hard to believe, but I picked up a thing or two working on the ranch for the past eight months.”

“Yes, well… you had a pretty good teacher.”

Lexa could tell Clarke was trying hard not to smile, but it was a losing battle. It almost felt like Lexa hadn’t ruined everything between them a few days ago.

Almost.

Lexa came to a realization then, suddenly and all at once.  She wasn’t one for following impulses, but one was so clear, and so obviously right , that she couldn’t ignore it. And she didn’t want to ignore it.

“Clarke, can I ask you something? And please, be completely honest with me.”

Clarke’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Alright.”

Lexa took a deep breath and wondered if she felt so giddy just because of the drugs. “Would you want to work on the ranch again?”

Clarke shot her an unreadable look. “I thought you fired me because you’ll go bankrupt otherwise.”

“That’s correct. I don’t see how I save the ranch, still. But…” Lexa swallowed past the lump in her throat. “I think I made a mistake, letting you go.”

Clarke raised her chin, and Lexa felt so vulnerable, just laying there in the hospital bed, barely able to move and, even more, ultimately at the mercy of this woman who had long ago become much more than a ranch hand to her.

“So let me get this straight,” Clarke said, voice like glass, as she counted off on her fingers. “You hired me on, or rather Anya hired me on and you went along with it; you convinced yourself that I would be a terrible employee and treated me like shit for weeks; you figured out I wasn’t so bad after all, and may even be passably cute enough for a summer fuck; you fired me at the first sign of trouble, because getting rid of me was the easiest solution.” Clarke counted off her fifth finger. “And now that I’ve saved your life, you think I’ll just ignore everything that has happened before and come running back to you.”

Lexa knew that she was white as the sheets around her, even as her sense of injustice roiled inside of her. “That’s not how I saw it, Clarke.”

“Which part?” Clarke asked sharply, then caught herself and took a deep breath. “How did you see it?”

Lexa was angry at herself for having put off this conversation for so long that she now was forced to have it laying in bed and high on drugs, but she decided that late was better than never. Still, she pushed herself up the bed so that she was at least sitting up against the pillows. Clarke waited for her, not helping at all, and said nothing.

Lexa had to catch her breath for a minute. It was distressing that even such a small movement was so difficult. But then again, it gave her more time to think.


“I agree with the first part of what you said,” Lexa explained. She didn’t think the sweat on her forehead was just from the physical exertion of sitting up. She had never needed someone to listen to her, to understand her, more than at this moment. “I didn’t want you working on the ranch at first. I thought Anya made a mistake hiring you, because you didn’t have any experience. But you proved yourself again and again, and I learned that you were the perfect person for the job. But you already know that.”

Clarke arched an eyebrow but otherwise showed no reaction.

Lexa paused, gave herself time to reconsider telling Clarke all of the truth. Would this help anything? Would it only make her relationship with Clarke even messier and push her away from the ranch all the more? Lexa steeled herself, face going blank. “What you may not know is that I fell for you the first day I met you.”

Clarke sucked in a deep breath and sat up straight in her chair. It looked as if she was battling through a fight or flight response, but in the end, she stayed. She looked hard at Lexa. “Why would you say something like that? After everything you’ve done?”

“Because it’s the truth,” Lexa said simply, willing Clarke to give her the chance to explain. “I admired you from the first day. You left behind everyone and everything you knew for a fresh start. You didn’t know much about being a ranch hand, but you had what mattered most: the drive to learn and to work hard. When you saved that calf on your first day, and named her Daenerys, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.”

Clarke listened to her with a mixture of curiosity and resentment. “Why?”

Lexa smiled at the memory. “I thought it was remarkably foolish for you to name a calf, when you had no idea if she was going to survive the season or not. When you knew she would be sold in a few months. But then, one day in the middle of winter, that calf that you saved, that you named, that you paid special attention to, she stayed by my side, even when the wolf was attacking and the rest of the herd fled.”

Clarke’s eyes glistened as her focus on her intensified. “What are you talking about?” she said barely above a whisper.

“I wouldn’t have survived last night without Daenerys.” It was all coming back to Lexa then, how she had struggled to walk through the snow, how the blood ran down her leg and puddled into her boot, how thick and coarse Daenerys’ fur had felt in her hand… how Lexa hadn’t known if she would make it back to the cabin again. To Clarke. “She kept me warm. And she ran toward you when you were nearby. You may not have found us without her.”

Daenerys ?” Clarke said in disbelief. Even though she looked on the verge of tears, she let loose a laugh that could have also been half a sob. “You’re telling me that Daenerys saved your life? She’s beautiful and a hero?”

“Judgement reserved on the beautiful part,” Lexa said, trying hard not to lean forward and wipe away one of the tears that had escaped down Clarke’s cheek. “But yes, I owe her--and you--my life. And that’s why I’m asking you to stay.”

Clarke swallowed hard but said nothing. Lexa couldn’t blame her, either. She could hardly believe it herself.

But now that Lexa had started telling Clarke how much she meant to her, she found that she couldn’t stop.  “You see the world differently than I do. I look at the calves and see an investment, while you see them as individuals. I see them for the money they’ll make me, but you want them to be happy and healthy. I’ve been running my ranch just as a business for so many years now, that I’ve forgotten what it feels like to care about the ranch, not for the money, or even for the memory of my parents, but because I love it. That at the end of the day, not only can I not see myself doing anything else, but that I don’t want to do anything else.”

Lexa looked down at her hands then and folded them in her lap. “And I don’t think I would have realized that without you.”

The silence between them grew, and Lexa had no idea what Clarke could be thinking. She was afraid that Clarke was still furious at her, or even worse, indifferent. If Clarke had listened to her and felt absolutely nothing, then it really would be best for Clarke to leave.

So Lexa said the last of what was burning in her heart, and then Clarke could decide what would happen next. “I know I hurt you, and I don’t deserve your forgiveness. But I want you to stay on the ranch. I think you’re good for the ranch, and…” Lexa raised her chin and focused on Clarke once again. “I think you’re good for me, too.”

Lexa thought that Clarke was frowning at her--and in fact had been frowning at her for minutes--but she realized that Clarke wasn’t looking at her so much as looking through her. When Clarke’s attention returned to her fully, Lexa was almost overwhelmed by the strength of it.

“What about the ranch?” she asked, sternly. “How will you afford to keep me?”

“I’ll find a way to make things work,” Lexa responded quickly. “I always have before, and I will again.”

Clarke covered her eyes with her hand. “You said there was no way to keep me on the ranch literally four days ago. Remember that? The whole, ‘I’ve been looking at the budget all night and fuck you, Clarke, I have to let you go?’”

“I remember,” Lexa murmured, even as that same nagging worry that she could be sabotaging her entire ranch overwhelmed her again. But what better reason was there to risk everything, than to keep Clarke in her life? “But I owe you my life, and so much more than that, so much more than I realized that day. I wish I could give you more than just your job back, but that’s all I have left to give. And I promise, I will never hurt you like that again.”

Clarke’s stormy blue eyes looked unconvinced. “That’s a big promise.”

Lexa nodded, never being more serious about something in her life. “And one I intend to keep.”

Clarke huffed a sigh and looked everywhere in the hospital room except at Lexa. She was shaking her head, then closed her eyes, and when she looked back to her, Lexa could see just how tired she really was.

Lexa held her breath. She was scared at how important Clarke’s answer was to her.

“I…” But Clarke grimaced and shook her head again. She let out a full-body sigh. “You don’t deserve me.”

Lexa still couldn’t breath. She was in too much suspense. “No, I don’t.”

“And I’m only doing it for Daenerys. And the rest of the cattle.” Clarke said with an angry undercurrent.

“Of course.”

“And if you even think about pulling some bullshit like this again…”

Lexa’s lungs were beginning to burn. “I won’t.”

“Then…” Clarke rolled her eyes, though at herself or Lexa, it wasn’t clear. “I’ll do it. But as soon as you don’t pay me, or you pull some stunt again, or get yourself attacked by a wolf the day I’m supposed to leave, I’m out of here.”

Lexa could finally breath again. Even if Clarke wasn’t coming back to her, to be with her, she was still going to be a part of Lexa’s life. And that was more than Lexa had even allowed herself to hope for. But she controlled herself, only allowing herself the smallest of smiles. “I understand.”

Although Clarke’s gaze lingered on her, it showed little warmth. She rose to her feet, collecting her bag, and walked to the door. She turned in the doorway, expression softening. “I’m glad you’re alive, Lexa,” she said, barely above a whisper.

But before Lexa could respond, she left the hospital room and closed the door behind her.

**********

Her medication was so strong that Lexa barely remembered leaving the hospital, let alone the long truck ride back to the cabin. She only knew that she woke up the next morning in her bed with a glass of water and granola bar on her nightstand, and she assumed that she could thank Clarke for all of it.

(But owing Clarke for something else… what else was new.)

Still, after sleeping away two whole days of her life, Lexa awoke with a throbbing leg and desire to never sleep for more than eight hours ever again. She later learned that Anya and Indra had stopped by the cabin more than once to see how she was doing, but that she had been passed out every time. And she learned that, despite everything, Clarke had brought her missing horse back from the fields, corralled the calves and brought them back to the barn to be weaned, and done all the other little tasks around the ranch as well. All while Lexa had been so high on painkillers that she didn’t even dream.

But now that Lexa was awake, she was determined to get better as fast as possible without pain medication. She needed to be alert, and she needed her leg to heal, if she had any hope of saving her ranch.

Unfortunately, getting better meant doing a lot of nothing. Her first attempted step on her injured leg ended with her face-down on the floor. She found the crutch propped up against the wall and decided it was best to actually use it. By the end of the journey from her room to the kitchen, she was out of breath and aching all over. So she did her best to relax, to rest, to stay put, even if it bored her out of her mind.

But after the third day, she realized she wasn’t very good at sitting around. And evidently, Clarke realized it too.

“Lexa. Why are you walking again,” Clarke scolded from her spot on the couch. “The doctor told you to stay put.”

Clarke seemed to fall back into old routines easily: waking up at the crack of dawn, eating a big breakfast before heading out into the pastures, coming back at dusk smelling like cattle and horses and sweat. She had largely ignored Lexa, only speaking to her when necessary.

But now, she looked at Lexa expectantly. And Lexa, not for the first time, couldn’t help but be grateful that they were even in the same room together, much less speaking again.

But Lexa was so sick of sitting down. She continued her laborious trip to the sink and poured herself a cup of water. “Even injured people are allowed to drink water” she said, taking another swig and beginning the long journey back to the kitchen table. She collapsed onto the chair as if she had just run a marathon.

Much to Clarke’s dismay, she had already cleaned the cabin that day and organized the tools in the barn, but technically she hadn’t violated the doctor’s orders to avoid strenuous exercise. Still, she thought she may have overdone it: her leg throbbed, even when she was sitting down. Lexa rubbed around her bandage--it never stopped itching.

“That’s it.”  Clarke rose from the spot on the couch, discarding her book without even bookmarking her page. She stood just behind Lexa’s chair and looked down on her. “You’re going to learn how to relax.”

Lexa had to crane her neck awkwardly to look up at her, but when she did, Clarke’s proximity made her forget all about the sore leg and itchy bandage. But Lexa forced herself to look back down at her book again. “Is reading not relaxing enough for you?”

“No, and it’s clearly not for you, either. You’ve only read…” She glanced over Lexa’s shoulder to the book. “Six pages all day.”

“I’m a slow reader,” Lexa grumbled, right before the book was snatched out of her hand. She spun around to lunge for it, but Clarke and the book were already halfway to the couch.

“Now come here,” Clarke demanded, sitting on the couch and pointing at the cushion next to her. “Slowly and carefully. I don’t want to drive you to the hospital again.”

Lexa couldn’t say that she didn’t enjoy seeing this side of Clarke. Ever since Clarke had returned to the cabin, such forcefulness was not uncommon. She had always been headstrong, even when she had been learning about all of the basics around the ranch, but now she was even more willing to speak her mind about anything and everything. Lexa appreciated the honesty, but that didn’t mean that Lexa was going to be a pushover.

She crossed her arms and slouched further down into the chair. The wood bit into her back, but Lexa maintained the pose. “No thanks.”

Clarke looked at her as if she couldn’t be serious, but when Lexa didn’t move, Clarke sprung off the couch and ran up behind her. Lexa found herself sliding across the floor in the chair, surprisingly fast, as Clarke pushed her from behind. When they got to the couch, Clarke tipped the chair forward and launched Lexa into the couch cushions. Lexa tumbled onto the couch and wondered who could possibly be giggling that much about something so childish… until she realized that she was the one giggling.

Clarke stood over her triumphantly, arms resting on top of the chair. “It was a reasonable request. But did she listen? Of course not.”

With some effort, Lexa managed to control her laughter. She uncontorted her body and lounged in the corner of the couch. “I’m here. Now what?” Lexa asked in what she hoped was a stern voice, but it was offset by how she had leaned her head back on the armrest and sighed.

Clarke disappeared into her room and re-emerged a moment later carrying her laptop. “I don’t know if they use these in the country, but this is a computer.” Clarke sat on the couch cushion farthest from her and opened the laptop, angling it towards Lexa.

“Clarke, I’ve used a computer before.”

Clarke shushed her, as she clicked open a folder. “This tiny device carries thousands of hours of mindless television, which is perfect for certain people who sit around all day while others work their asses off.”

Lexa glared at her slightly. “I almost died, Clarke.”

“Karma’s a bitch, isn’t it?” Clarke had said the words quickly, but she shook her head. “I didn’t mean that.”

“Are you sure?” Lexa thought that she had meant it, and what was worse, Lexa couldn’t blame her. Maybe she hadn’t deserved what had happened to her, but it was exactly what she had needed to see how wrong she had been about Clarke.

“No one deserves to be mauled by a wolf, Lexa. Even heartless bosses like you.”

The words hurt Lexa more than they should have. Even if she understood why Clarke said them. Even if she didn’t disagree with them.

But Clarke cleared her throat and clicked on one of the shows, bringing up an episode. “Anyway. This show will either get you hooked or make you fall asleep. Either way, it’ll help your leg heal. And one of the actresses isn’t hard on the eyes, either.”

The title, Fear the Walking Dead, flashed across the screen. Lexa had never heard of it, and wasn’t really into the whole zombie thing, but she didn’t want to say anything. She didn’t trust her voice after what Clarke had said.

But as Lexa settled into the couch and tried to let the episode distract her from the pain in her leg, Clarke yawned and stood up, stretching her arms.

“You’re not going to watch?” Lexa asked. She hoped that Clarke didn’t hear the disappointment in her voice.

“I have to wake up early and get the calves ready for market,” Clarke said with a twist of her lips.

Of course. The calves were going to the feedlot soon, which meant that Daenerys would be leaving the ranch forever. It seemed unfair that Lexa would repay the calf’s kindness by selling her for beef. Even Lexa was sad to see that calf go. But she needed money, and selling all of the calves, including Daenerys, was her fastest source of income right then.

Still, it must have been tearing Clarke up to say goodbye to her favorite calf.

But if she was struggling at all, she didn’t show it. She left Lexa and her laptop in the living room without another word and disappeared to her bedroom, closing the door softly behind her. And even though Lexa watched the entire episode, she afterword couldn’t recall a single thing that had happened.

**********

It was as miserable a day as any to sell off the cattle. The feedlot was being barraged by an endless wailing of frigid wind, and even though Lexa had done this many times before, today was more difficult than usual.

She and Clarke had already corralled the other calves out of the trailer and into the chute that would lead them to the feedlot. But Lexa had kept Daenerys behind and patted the fur along her neck. She swore that Daenerys leaned into her touch.

She had never done this with one of her cattle before, petted it, talked to it, been hesitant to sell it. She knew it was crazy to be so fond of a calf, but Daenerys had literally saved her life, and now Lexa was going to use her, again, to help save her ranch.  

Not for the first time, Lexa wished there was another way.

Glancing over to Clarke, Lexa could see the unfallen tears crowding in her eyes. She moved to place a hand onto Clarke’s shoulder but let her hand fall when she realized how unwelcome it would be. “Take as long as you need, Clarke,” she said, before turning back to the truck.

She walked with her crutch back to the truck and buckled up, watching as Clarke hugged Daenerys’ head tight. She didn’t let go for a full minute.

But eventually, Clarke opened the gate and gave Daenerys a little shove away from her. The calf was uncertain at first, looking back at Clarke with huge, innocent eyes, but she soon turned and followed the chute after the other cattle into the barn.

When Clarke finally made it back to the truck, Lexa wasn’t surprised to see that Clarke’s eyes were red and swollen. But what she hadn’t expected was how wet her own cheeks were. All the way back to the ranch, they didn’t say a word to each other.

**********

Even without the calves, work on the ranch never stopped. Lexa was confined to sedentary tasks around the cabin and barn--continually worrying about finances, repairing saddles and tack and corrals, changing truck oil, really anything that she could get her hands on--while Clarke roamed the grassland on horseback, alone. Lexa made her take a hunting rifle with her, even though she had only shot a gun once before in her life. But if there was one hungry wolf out there in the prairies, there could be more, and Lexa was taking no chances. She showed her how to fire it at cans behind the barn, how to load it and clean it, and by the end, just like with every other task she had taught her, Clarke learned more quickly than Lexa could have ever imagined.

With the ever-shortening winter days, Clarke returned to the cabin every twilight with plenty of time for dinner. At first, she had made the same incredible food as she had before, but only for herself, and Lexa’s stomach practically ate itself, the smells almost making her go crazy. But one day, Clarke set the table with one extra plate.

“Are you eating?” she asked, not even looking at Lexa before hurrying back to the stove and stirring the pot of spaghetti sauce.

Lexa blinked in surprise. “I was about to make myself a sandwich,” she said uncertainly.

“Well now you don’t have to. Sit,” Clarke commanded, as she set up each plate with a generous serving of noodles and sauce.

Lexa limped across the room with the crutch under her arm, her leg throbbing with each step, even as she tried to temper her excitement at eating a proper meal… one made by Clarke.They had spoken little since Clarke had started working on the ranch again, and Lexa had begun to resign herself that that was how it would be until the spring. But now, she was drawn by the lure of garlic and tomatoes and seasoning… and by the one who had made it.

She more or less fell into the seat across from Clarke at the dining room table, wincing, as she propped the crutch up against the table. She hated that just walking across the room could set her leg off like that. But she was getting stronger, she could tell, and soon she wouldn’t even need the crutch anymore. As the silence persisted between them, Lexa wound her fork into the spaghetti and took her first bite.

She hadn’t meant to moan aloud at the taste of it, but…

“I guess that means it’s alright?” Clarke said, laughing a little as she began eating. “Mmm, but you’re right, I think I’ve outdone myself.”

Lexa forced herself to eat as slowly as she could, but even so, she was racing through her plate. “Thank you for this. I’ve… had a lot of sandwiches lately.” She still couldn’t believe that Clarke was talking to her, was serving her food, was generally not hating her or being indifferent toward her. She knew she didn’t deserve it, but that only made her more determined not to screw it up.

Clarke’s eyebrow rose. “You could cook like this too, you know, if you wanted to. Nothing is stopping you.”

But Lexa shook her head. “I’ve never been a cook. That was always my mom. I wouldn’t even know where to start.”

“Would you like to learn?”

Clarke continued eating, as if she hadn’t just caused Lexa’s heart to skip a beat. But Clarke had no reason to teach her how to cook, no reason to show her any kind of basic human kindness, really. If Clarke wanted to punish her with glares and silence for the rest of her time on the ranch, Lexa would understand.

But this… Lexa was unprepared for it.

“You don’t need to teach me, Clarke,” Lexa managed to say, willing her nerves to relax.

“No, I don’t. But I’m offering.” Clarke sighed a little, pushing her plate away. “Listen, it’s not a big deal. But you eat like you’re a hunter gatherer in your own house. It’s sad.”

So Clarke was just taking pity on her? “I’ve managed for 25 years. I don’t need to learn.”

Clarke stared at her for a long moment before continuing to eat. “Whatever you want.”

Here Clarke was, trying to reach out to her, be kind to her, help her in a part of her life where Lexa really was lacking, and she was turning her down for her pride. It was ridiculous. Scolding herself, Lexa softened her tone. “If you’re offering… I would like some lessons. Something easy, please.”

Clarke only glanced at her briefly, before taking their empty plates to the sink. Her voice was almost muffled by the sound of the running sink. “What about Thanksgiving? Turkey’s pretty easy. What were you planning?”

Lexa hadn’t even allowed herself to consider Clarke celebrating the holidays with her. She thought that she would refuse if she had asked her. She thought that they were too estranged, that there was too much bad blood, for Lexa to be able to be present at a time where Clarke would be contemplating what she was grateful for in life. But now the thought of Clarke with her and her friends, eating and joking and laughing, was the only thought in her mind.

“Anya usually hosts,” Lexa explained, as Clarke continued washing dishes. “She invites Indra, and their parents, and me. I know that you would be welcome. She usually has me bring rolls.”

“Because rolls are hard to mess up,” Clarke said. “Sorry, but it’s true.”

But Lexa could still feel herself blush. “I may have burned them last year.”

That spurred a laugh in Clarke, which Lexa realized was the first time that she had laughed since she had returned to work at the ranch. She couldn’t believe that she got to hear it again. It was beautiful as ever, she thought, before she realized how she couldn’t let herself think that way. Never again. Not with Clarke, at least.

“Well, they won’t be burnt this year. I’ll ask Anya tomorrow if she wants us to make something else. I make some mean stuffing. And pie. And bread. And green beans… and everything, I guess.” Finally, Clarke turned back to her, with something like hope on her face. “Think you can help with some of that?”

Lexa really didn’t know how she was so fortunate as to know someone like Clarke. “With close supervision, yes.”

“Oh don’t worry,” Clarke said with a smile. “I won’t let you do anything to endanger the food.”

She went back to cleaning the dishes, but Lexa could only run through the conversation again, and every conversation they had had since Clarke had started working again, what they had said to each other in the hospital, and even the parts that she could remember out in the fields, when Clarke and Daenerys had saved her. But she couldn’t come up with anything that showed why Lexa would deserve this second chance to be Clarke’s friend.

*********

“You ready?” Clarke called from the kitchen

Lexa paused the episode of Fear the Walking Dead on the laptop (she wasn’t that into it, anyway… she didn’t know why Clarke was so into that actress), and pushed herself to her feet carefully. She didn’t need the crutch anymore, but she still limped and had to be careful not to bend her leg wrong or put too much weight on it. Rounding the corner and coming into the kitchen, Lexa couldn’t help but stare and let loose a small sigh. Clarke stood with her back to her, blonde hair free over her shoulders, and Lexa could almost imagine what it would feel like to run her hand through it, to expose the expanse of her neck, to breathe her in and place her lips gently onto Clarke’s radiant skin…

But she couldn’t. Not anymore. She would remind herself of that fact until she finally got it into her head. Besides, it was Thanksgiving. She tried to focus on what she was grateful for: the cattle she still had (so much fewer than before), the roof over her head (at least until she had to sell the ranch), and Clarke in her kitchen (never to be her lover again).

But Clarke turned, and her forehead scrunched in confusion. “What are you doing just standing there? Come on, you’re on veggie chopping duty.”

For all her worries, Lexa wanted to focus on the moment. Focus on being here, with Clarke. Even if she couldn’t joke with her quite like she used to. Even if she couldn’t touch her. She limped over to her side and looked down at the onion and celery on the cutting board. “This might take a while.”

“Oh no it won’t, because I’m going to show you how to speed chop.” Clarke’s eyes narrowed with mischief. “But first… if you’re going to be in the kitchen, you need to look the part.”

“And what does that mean?”

“It means that…” Clarke motioned for her to stay put, as she opened one of the cabinets below the counter, rummaged around, and pulled out a piece of cloth. She held it up in front of Lexa, grinning ear to ear. “You have to wear this.

It was an apron.

Lexa looked with a mixture of skepticism, surprise, and…. Excitement. No, of course she didn’t want to wear it. But the fact that Clarke wanted her to wear it…

“I found it while looking for the baking soda,” Clarke explained, speaking quickly. “And it's actually really practical when you're cooking or baking. It keeps your clothes clean and protects you from splashing oil, and--”

“And you really want to see me in an apron,” Lexa said, cutting her off with too much hope in her voice.

“And I really want to see you in an apron,” Clarke repeated, grin widening.

It was the first time that Clarke had looked at her like that since Lexa had fired her, and it took everything Lexa had not to fall backwards into the counter. It was impossible for her to say no to Clarke in general, but especially when she was looking at her like that. And if something as simple as her wearing an apron would make Clarke happy, then…

Lexa snatched the apron from Clarke's hands. It looked like a relic from another age and was covered in roosters for some reason. She imagined it belonged to her parents, but she didn’t remember them ever wearing it.

Lexa took off her flannel and slipped the apron over her head. She struggled with the ties in the back, before Clarke stepped behind her and tied them for her. Lexa did her best to ignore the flutter in her stomach from having Clarke so close behind her, and the way her fingers brushed against her back as she tied the knot. Clarke stepped back and looked her up and down. Lexa fidgeted with the pockets of the apron under her scrutiny.

“I don't want this to be weird, but…” Clarke took her phone out of her pocket. “Can I take your picture? I really need a photo of this.”

Lexa’s fidgeting paused. Even though Clarke had taken plenty of photos around the ranch--she must have had enough photos of Daenerys for an entire album--she had never taken a photo of Lexa. And that she would want one, now, after everything that had happened?

Lexa could feel her throat constricting with emotion, but she regained control of herself and forced a smile that she hoped was halfway normal. “Just one,” she said, even though she would let Clarke do whatever she wanted. “Should I pose?”

“Yes. Please,” Clarke said, backing up to get a better shot.

Searching around the kitchen, she took the hand mixer from the counter and held down the button experimentally. The mixer whirred in response, more intensely than she had expected. It didn't seem that different from a power drill, really.

Clarke laughed as she focused the phone camera on her. “That's perfect. Hold it, just like that…”

Of course, as Lexa knew she would, she let Clarke take several photos of her, each more ridiculous than the last. There was an action shot of her chopping vegetables with a maniacal grin; one of her holding the rolling pin like a sword and slashing at the canned pumpkin; and one of Lexa’s very flour-covered nose (which quickly turned into an all-out flour fight, until Clarke admonished her that they would still need some flour to finish the pie crust).

Lexa may have learned a couple of things about cooking that evening, but what she really learned was that Clarke could still smile, could still laugh, could still have fun… with her. And that was the most valuable lesson that Lexa thought she might ever learn.

**********

It was the best Thanksgiving that Lexa could remember.

It’s not that anything spectacular or out of the ordinary happened. It progressed much as any other Thanksgiving had since Lexa’s parents had passed away, but the food was tastier (thanks to Clarke), the laughter was sweeter (Lexa also attributed this to Clarke), Indra’s gloating after her board game victory was even less tolerable (she had won against seven people, not just four like usual), and Lexa was more grateful than she had ever been in her life.

She couldn’t believe that Clarke had only been a part of her life for the past eight months, and yet… there she was, helping clear the table with Indra, and the normally sullen Indra was laughing at something she had said. Anya’s eyes had literally rolled into the back of her head when she had tasted Clarke’s stuffing. And seeing the shock on Anya’s and Indra’s faces after Clarke confirmed that Lexa had made the pie herself (she may have used the term “all by herself,” which Lexa knew wasn’t quite true, but she didn’t argue) was priceless.

And Clarke became an immediate legend, as far as the parents present at the meal were concerned. Anya’s mother gave Clarke her email address, so she could send her the recipes she had used. And Indra’s father somehow became tied down with Clarke in a polite but intense discussion about America’s role in the international community (which had Indra’s mother sighing. “He always does this at parties,” she said, refilling her wine glass).

In short, Clarke felt like part of the family. Lexa’s family. And imagining that this Thanksgiving almost hadn’t happened, because Lexa had been so bullheaded as to think she didn’t need Clarke, on the ranch or in her life… It was unthinkable.

At the end of the night, belly full and heart warm, Lexa stood by her truck as Anya’s and Indra’s parents said goodbye to her and Clarke, all to the tune of “It was nice to meet you” and “Don’t forget to read that book I told you about!” and “I hope you’re coming next year, too!” Anya and Indra themselves had already made dinner and board game plans with Clarke for next week.

As the truck bounced down the snowy dirt roads back to the ranch, Lexa looked over to Clarke beside her. She was still smiling, and had been smiling ever since they had left Anya’s house. It made Lexa feel at peace, like Clarke wanted to be there with her, like she wasn’t wasting this second chance she had been given.

But most of all, Lexa was still glowing about Clarke’s response to their round-table question of “What are you grateful for this year?”

Clarke had smiled to herself, somewhat sadly, but then looked around to each person at the table. “I’m grateful to have met all of you.” Her eyes lingered on Lexa before she looked away. “As corny as that sounds.”

Anya confirmed that yes, it was very corny but entirely reasonable for Clarke to be grateful to have met her.

When it was Lexa’s turn, she took a deep breath, and then another. She looked at Clarke, hoping that she would understand. “Second chances,” she said, the words almost catching in her throat.

The softness in Clarke’s eyes made her think that she had understood.

And now, the truck bouncing along the dirt roads, the moonlight reflecting brightly off of the snow, Clarke staring out the window with a smile on her face, Lexa let herself think what she had really wanted to say before.

Obviously, she was most grateful for Clarke.

**********

Winter was firmly entrenched now, with daily highs never surpassing freezing, no matter how inviting the clear blue skies might seem. The snow never left, merely being blown from one hilltop to another. But even as the cold seemed to settle into Lexa’s bones and become a part of her, Lexa continued to heal. One day, grooming her horse, she decided that it was time. She secured the saddle and climbed up into it with difficulty, but she found that that was the hardest part. After that, she began accompanying Clarke on her shorter trips around the ranch, and she finally felt like she was useful again.

For her part, Clarke was quieter than she had been, and that furrow between her eyebrows never seemed to truly go away, but she stayed. She worked hard, harder than Lexa had ever expected a temporary hire to work. And after that Thanksgiving, Lexa thought that she might even be happy that she decided to stay on the ranch.

(Lexa certainly was happy about that, for the extra help while she recovered, for company in the cabin during the never-ending winter nights, and simply for Clarke.)

But every time that they visited the herd in the fields, or corralled them back to the barn before a storm, Lexa noticed how Clarke searched through the cows with just a momentary glimpse of hope before her lips curled in disappointment. For months, Clarke had been greeted by a rambunctious calf running across the fields toward her. But now, the cows barely glanced up from their pawing through the snow in search of grass. Clarke’s usual excitement to see Daenerys (and the rest of the cattle, she supposed) was replaced by diligence to just do her job.

Lexa remembered how her eyes used to light up, how she had almost been knocked over more than once by Daenerys running to her, how Clarke had a folder on her laptop of Daenerys photos. Even though Lexa didn’t understand how Clarke had formed a friendship with a calf, she did understand how it felt to lose the things that you care about.

So Lexa looked at her finances once again (dismal, but what else was new). She wondered if this was a normal thing for a ranch owner to do for a ranch hand (it wasn’t). She gave herself a night to sleep on it (she woke up the next morning just as determined as ever to make Clarke happy).

And that day, she made the arrangements. Because she knew, no matter how much it cost her, seeing Clarke’s smile would be worth it.

**********

Clarke shifted the curtain to the side again and peered outside. The sky was so dark, it was hard to know that it was mid-morning.

“Any change?” Lexa asked from where she sat at the kitchen table. She had taken this opportunity to review her schedule and finances for the next week. It may have been Christmas, but there was always work to do.

“Yeah. It’s gotten worse.” Clarke let the curtain fall again and huffed when she reached the table. “The snow is so thick, I can’t even see the barn anymore.”

Lexa just hummed in response. If nothing else, at least it was a “White Christmas” (although such a thing wasn’t exactly rare around there.) They had been ready for this one and moved the cattle into the barn the night before. They wouldn’t have another disaster like the unexpected blizzard in October. Lexa was determined never to be taken off guard like that again.

“Lexa.”

She didn’t respond for a moment, but then the folder containing the Lexa’s records closed abruptly in front of her. Lexa looked up to Clarke leaning over the table, her hands firmly pressing the folder shut.

“It’s Christmas,” Clarke continued. “And you’ve already been obsessing over that for hours.”

It was true, but Lexa had to. Especially after her unwise purchase the last week, she had to check and double-check every data entry, every purchase, every receipt, because that was her new reality. She already knew she would have to slash her food and household goods budget, and she would find other cuts wherever she had to…

But Clarke was right. There wasn’t anything else she could do that day. Maybe it was time to take a break from working and enjoy Christmas.

“At this rate, I don’t think we’ll be making it over to Anya’s at all.” Clarke sat down at the table beside her. “The truck is buried in snow halfway up the tires. It’s really not looking good.”

“You underestimate my truck,” Lexa countered. “I drove sixty miles through a blizzard that shut down the state for a week, once.”

Clarke rolled her eyes. “As much fun as it sounds to get stuck in a snow drift and spend Christmas shivering to death, maybe we should just stay here.”

That gave Lexa pause. She had been looking forward to spending another holiday with Clarke and her friends and their families, but spending Christmas alone with Clarke would be… personal. (And wonderful.)

“Is that what you want?” Lexa asked, afraid of her answer.

“Not like we have much choice. I was looking forward to Anya’s mom’s ridiculous praise of my cooking again.” Clarke sighed, glancing out the window again, but she looked back to Lexa with the beginnings of a smile. “But it could be worse. We have five pounds of mashed potatoes in the fridge and enough kale salad to feed a small village. And the apple fritters you made.”

We made,” Lexa corrected, not willing to pretend for a second that she could take full credit for those when Clarke had been helping her every step of the way. Undeniably, Lexa felt more confident in the kitchen now than she had before Thanksgiving, but she still had a long way to go before she could make anything more complicated than spaghetti (much to Clarke’s both amusement and frustration). “Still, this will be my first Christmas at home in… a long time.” She hadn’t been home for Christmas since before her parents had passed away, and that brought back bittersweet memories.

She almost thought that Clarke could tell what she was thinking, the way that her warm eyes filled with understanding. “Think of it this way,” Clarke said gently, leaning forward. “At Thanksgiving, you got to show me some of your traditions. And now for Christmas, I get to show you some of mine.”

Lexa couldn’t deny that she was intrigued. “Those being?”

“First thing is a big breakfast.”

Lexa felt herself smiling. “I should have known Christmas would revolve around food.”

“Not all of it,” Clarke insisted, looking offended at first, but she turned sheepish. “Just the best parts.”

So together, they made breakfast. Or rather, Lexa stood at her side and occasionally flipped this or stirred that, while Clarke made them breakfast. Clarke cued up some old-time Christmas music on her laptop, and it felt like they had transported themselves two months into the past, before Lexa had made the biggest mistake of her life and disappointed Clarke. Soon, the cabin filled with the sweet smell of cinnamon as the rolls baked, and they each ate a cinnamon roll as large as their faces. Lexa knew it was foolish, but she looked forward to smelling cinnamon in the future, just so she could be reminded of this moment, and how Clarke had a dab of icing stuck at the corner of her mouth for half of breakfast, but Lexa didn’t say anything.

It was different than the Christmas Lexa had imagined she would be having with Clarke, but hearing Clarke hum along to the songs on the laptop as she had formed the cinnamon rolls on the sheet had been better than anything Lexa could have hoped for.

After they had piled up the dishes into the sink to soak (Christmas was not about dishes, Lexa had decided), Clarke gave her a sheepish look. “After breakfast, it would normally be time for presents…” Clarke trailed off uncertainly.

“I did get you something,” Lexa said, as she instantly grew anxious. “I hope that’s alright.”

Clarke looked away. “I got you something, too.”

Even without knowing what it was, Lexa could feel that ribbon of hope flutter through her again. She knew things would never be the same again between them, but she couldn’t help but think that if Clarke got her a gift, then maybe they could at least be friends.

“You should see yours last,” Lexa said quickly. She thought Clarke would like it, but… if she didn’t, she would rather have this Christmas live up to Clarke’s expectations for as long as possible.

“See it? Not open it?” Clarke asked with a sly smile. “Interesting.”

But Clarke didn’t press her any further and ran off to her room to get the present. She returned with something wrapped in bright red paper in the shape of a shoe box, with an elaborate bow made of ribbon on top. She placed it in front of Lexa and sat down again with a small smile. “Open it.”

Lexa had a hard time looking away from her bright eyes. Even in the dark cabin, with the winter sun hidden behind miles of storm clouds and pellets of snow blowing outside, the blue of Clarke’s eyes reminded her of a radiant, warm summer day. She turned her attention to the present, slowly removing the wrapping paper one piece of tape at a time.

Unexpectedly, Clarke’s laughter rang through the cabin. “Seriously, Lexa? You won’t get through opening it by next Christmas at this pace.”

Lexa meant to shoot her a look, but Clarke’s affectionate smile took all the fight out of her. When she finally removed the paper and opened the box, Lexa stared for a long time at its contents.

“Is it OK?” Clarke asked anxiously. “I figured you liked it, after how much you had at my birthday….”

Lexa removed the bottle from the box as if it were a newborn baby and placed it softly onto the table. It was a bottle of whisky, the same brand that Clarke had selected for Lexa at her birthday party (until Clarke had started buying her other types of drinks… Lexa couldn’t even remember what they had been). But the “middle shelf” whisky? That Lexa remembered all too well.

Just as she remembered their almost-kiss, and how Lexa’s body had trembled with the possibility of kissing Clarke, the expectation of it sending her mind into such a clamor of hope and apprehension and passion and suppressed need and, above all, the realization that Clarke would never be just a ranch hand ever again.

That’s what this middle shelf whisky had led to, to them finally admitting that they meant more to each other than either of them had admitted up to that point. It had led to Lexa driving out to that sunset, so that they could lay in each other’s arms and enjoy the beauty of the setting sun and of each other. And of course, it had led to long nights spent in Lexa’s room, sheets jumbled around them, fingers and lips and tongues exploring, secrets divulged, and, Lexa had realized, love kindled.

And Clarke had to know this that this whisky wasn’t just whisky. It was caught up in everything that they had become to each other, and everything that Lexa had lost in that pivotal moment. Clarke knew that… didn’t she?

And if she did, what did that mean?

When Lexa looked back to Clarke, the slight upturn to Clarke’s lips and the softness of her eyes, but more than anything, the worry creasing her brow, told her that yes, Clarke wasn’t oblivious to the symbolism of this gift.

“Thank you, Clarke. It’s the best whisky I’ve ever had.” Lexa returned her smile in kind. “But do you mind if we wait past noon before I crack it open?”

Clarke’s anxiety seemed to dissipate all at once. “I think that’s fair,” she said, smiling wider. “And maybe we won’t mix it with tequila and rum this time.”

All their shared moments over the months, big and small, romantic and mundane, significant and commonplace, washed over Lexa then. Clarke had carved such a huge place into her life that Lexa wondered what her life had been like before she had shown up.

Lexa cleared her throat then. It wouldn’t do to give Clarke a passionate speech about everything that she meant to her, if Clarke had no interest in resuming their relationship, or whatever it had been. Clarke was there for the ranch, not for Lexa. She knew that, but it was hard to stick to that, when Clarke bought her whisky that brought on this flood of memories.

“Are you ready for your present?” Lexa asked her as she headed for the door out to the front porch.

Clarke watched her go curiously. “Yes…? But where are you going?”

“Where are we going?” Lexa slipped on her jacket, boots, and beanie. She felt like she was preparing herself to go to war, and in a way she was. The blizzard was still raging outside. “I’d suggest putting something on over your pajamas. It looks cold outside.”

Clarke laughed at her. “Yeah. No shit. Maybe we should head out after the blizzard has stopped.”

Lexa shrugged at her and tried to appear casual. “Up to you. But the storm may not lift until the end of the day. Or tomorrow, even. Can you wait until then to see your presen?”

Clarke narrowed her eyes at Lexa and eventually rose from the table with a sigh. “Fine. But it better be worth putting on 50 pounds of clothes.”

Lexa watched her suit up in warm and waterproof clothing with a smile. She knew Clarke wouldn’t be able to wait.

Once they were both so bundled up that they might as well be walking marshmallows, Lexa opened the front door and hurried through it, closing it hastily behind Clarke before too much of the blowing snow could enter the cabin. It was a freezing cold, confusing, painful world, with tiny ice particles hitting the small amount of exposed skin on Lexa’s cheeks. She felt Clarke’s look of expectation, and her eyes were practically screaming “This better be worth it.”

Lexa hoped it was worth it, too.

Lexa led the way across the snow drifts that cut across the yard between the cabin and the barn. Some of the drifts were already to her waist, and she struggled through them with enough effort to break out into a sweat underneath her layers of clothing, despite the sub-zero temperatures and biting wind.

Inside the barn, Lexa pulled the door shut behind them, and they were met with the sudden silence away from the wind.

Clarke looked around the barn at the cattle grazing on hay bales and drinking water from troughs outfitted with heating elements to keep it from freezing. “Did you hide my present out here so I wouldn’t find it before Christmas, or…?”

“Something like that.” Lexa walked amongst the cattle. Some of them stamped their feet at the intrusion on their mealtime, but most of them ignored her completely. She found her then, face buried in the feeding trough, grabbing mouthfuls of hay and chewing slowly. But when Lexa walked up to her and patted a hand onto the thick black fur around her neck, she looked up at her and, Lexa swore, smiled.

Clarke was still on the other side of the barn, but even from there, Lexa could hear her breath hitch. She didn’t cross over to her, like Lexa thought she would, but instead stayed glued to where she was standing, speechless.

Lexa looked into the heifer’s dark, tranquil eyes. “She seems a little scared of you right now.” Daenerys just continued chewing the hay and stared at her peacefully, and Lexa glanced back over to Clarke, who was still frozen in place. “Maybe we should go to her?”

But it didn’t take long before Clarke was practically running across the barn, weaving in between cattle that mooed at her and wondered why she was in such a hurry. But when Clarke’s arms wrapped around Daenerys’ neck, and the heifer gave a huff of breath that could have been translated as a sigh of relief, Lexa knew that her gift was well-received.

When Lexa actually heard Clarke sob, she wondered if she had gone too far. But Clarke eventually broke away from Daenerys and looked up at Lexa with tears in her eyes that she hastily wiped away with the back of her glove. But she couldn’t help but return her attention back to Daenerys and scratch behind her ears the way she liked, as she rolled her huge head into her fingers.

“How…?” Clarke wiped her nose and sniffled. “We sold her. I was there.”

“I’ve known the buyer for a long time,” Lexa explained, enjoying how Clarke didn’t seem able to tear her eyes or her touch away from Daenerys. “All it took was a phone call to get her back.”

“But…” Clarke frowned over at her. “You need to sell her. You need the money.”

Lexa held her gaze, allowing herself a small smile. “She’ll be able to produce calves next year. And besides…” Lexa gulped, hoping that her next words weren’t too much. “Some things are more important than money.”

Clarke patted Daenerys’ head one last time, then moved in front of Lexa. She hesitated for a long moment but then enveloped Lexa in her arms. It was so tight that it squeezed the air out of Lexa’s lungs, but that wasn’t why it took her breath away. Even with all of the layers of clothing that they were wearing, Lexa could still feel how well their bodies fit together, how Clarke’s cheek rested on her shoulder, how Clarke’s arms around her felt like the most natural thing in the world… Lexa didn’t know when her own arms had wrapped around Clarke and held her close, or even how long they stood there in the barn, surrounded by cattle, the smell of hay and manure and snow enveloping them, but when Clarke broke away, Lexa realized just how empty she felt without Clarke close to her.

“Thank you,” Clarke said, simply but sincerely. “I never thought I would see Daenerys again. But I don’t know how you can afford it, especially with everything else going on.”

Lexa shrugged. “There’s always a way. Or at least, that’s what a very wise and intelligent woman told me once.”

Clarke rolled her eyes, but not before her cheeks had flushed. “She saved your life, and now you’ve saved hers. I guess you two are even.” She let out a little laugh that could have been half sob and returned to Daenerys, massaging the back of her head again. “I never meant to develop a favorite, but…”

“You can’t help who you like, I know.” It had come out before Lexa had the chance to reevaluate, but in the end, she meant every word of it.

Clarke’s hand paused her movements across Daenerys’ fur and resumed a few seconds later. “No. No you can’t.”

Lexa headed back to the cabin first. She figured Clarke would want to be alone with Daenerys for a while and catch up (or whatever people do with their favorite cattle). But even through the biting cold outside, Lexa was warm with the memory of Clarke’ body clinging onto her own.

**********

The frenzy of the snowstorm only heightened as the day progressed, and they settled on the fact that they were unable to leave the cabin at all that day.

When Clarke finally returned to the cabin and unfurled herself from her multiple layers of clothing, she settled onto the couch beside Lexa, close enough that Clarke’s honeydew scent washed over her. Clarke looked at Lexa with expectation. “Thank you again. I can’t believe that you brought her back.”

“It’s fine, Clarke. I know how much she means to you,” Lexa said, although her reddening cheeks were enough of a betrayal of how much Clarke’s words meant to her. “So what’s next?” she asked, changing the subject.

“Usually my family would settle down after all the excitement and watch a few movies,” Clarke said. She took her laptop from the table and searched for a few minutes. “Ah, here we go.”

The screen showed a young Bruce Willis making his way through a crowded airplane holding a stuffed animal.

“Die Hard? Really?” Lexa asked in disbelief.

“What?” Clarke shrugged and settled deeper into the couch. “It happens on Christmas, so that makes it a Christmas movie. And they only say ‘fuck’ like, a few dozen times, so it’s still family-friendly.”

“Is this what your family watched on Christmas when you were a kid?”

“If only. It’s much better than A Christmas Story. But Raven got me into this movie a few years ago. There’s no going back now.”

By the time the movie ended, Lexa was slouched with her feet propped up on the coffee table, the blanket they shared pulled up to her chest and leaving her wool sock-covered feet bare. They had warmed up some of their mashed potatoes halway through the movie, and now empty bowls were pushed haphazardly to the sides of the table.

Lexa groaned a little. “I think I’m half potato now.”

“Mashed potato or couch potato?” Clarke asked with a silly smirk as she queued up another movie.

The speakers on Clarke’s laptop rang out as the black-and-white scene of falling snow and old-time cars unfolded. “I owe everything to George Bailey. Help him, dear Father,” the old man’s voice said.

“Seriously?” Lexa said, glancing over to Clarke. “We’re going from fifty f-bombs--I counted--to It’s a Wonderful Life?”

Clarke nodded solemnly. “We must now cleanse our spirits and learn the true meaning of Christmas. But you know what we could use...”

Lexa looked at her in confusion. “Not more potatoes.”

“Whisky.”

“Oh.”

“Only if you want to,” Clarke said, sitting up straighter on the couch. “I just think it could be nice.”

But Lexa was already getting up and padding towards her liquor cabinet. She poured two glasses over ice. Because what could be better than old Christmas movies and whisky with Clarke?

(But that was obvious. Everything was better with Clarke.)

Clarke took the glass with a smile. “Cheers. Merry Christmas, Lexa.”

Lexa was so grateful she had the chance to say these words to her. “Merry Christmas, Clarke.” She tried to keep the dopey smile on her face to a somewhat manageable level, with limited success.

The glasses clinked, and they both took small sips of the whisky. It burned down Lexa’s throat, and she loved it.

Clarke settled deep into the couch again, the whisky glass propped up onto the armrest. “My mom would always be sipping a glass of wine all day that somehow seemed to remain full, no matter how much she drank. She told me it was grape juice for the longest time, but I wasn’t stupid. Or at least, not that stupid.”

“Did you ever drink some of her wine?” Lexa asked, ignoring the movie completely now.

Clarke didn’t seem to be paying much attention either, as she leveled a sly smile at Lexa. “I was nine. I got through a whole glass before my mom realized. I wrapped up my younger cousin in Christmas lights and put the star on top of his head. I think Christmas is still his least favorite holiday.”

And it continued like that, all through It’s a Wonderful Life and into A Muppet Christmas Carol, which Lexa hadn’t seen before but secretly thought was her favorite retelling of the story (or maybe it was Clarke splayed out on the couch next to her, her feet propped up against Lexa’s legs, or the second glass of whisky that Lexa poured for the both of them).

Clarke told her her about the rest of her family’s Christmas traditions: about the entire family congregating at their house; aunts and uncles and cousins running around and generally making fools of themselves; small talk occasionally ramping up into all the topics that family members are supposed to avoid during holidays and ending in arguments that were only settled when the food arrived and reminded people why they were really there (to eat); the food --Clarke went into elaborate detail about it, describing the scents and the flavors and the textures and the cooking process that began days before Christmas itself; even how her favorite aunt (Clarke really did develop favorites, Lexa pointed out to her embarrassment) helped convince her one Christmas to pursue veterinary school instead of med school like her mom had wanted her to do.

And Lexa shared, too. About her family’s low-key Christmases, spending the morning together, just the three of them, opening presents and completing their small daily chores around the ranch, before meeting up with her parent’s friends and sharing Christmas dinner with them. The other couples had children, but they were several years older than her, so she had to figure out early on how to relate to older children and their parents to keep herself entertained. There had been no “kid table” at Lexa’s Christmases, but she hadn’t minded. In high school, Lexa’s, Indra’s and Anya’s Christmas celebrations became more and more intertwined, until their families relented and decided to celebrate the holidays together.

The sun was setting already, and while the blizzard outside had slowed, the snow drifts had accumulated to such a point as to make travel impossible… But with the cattle safe and sound in the barn, and Clarke curled up on the couch beside her, Lexa was beginning to love how Christmas hadn’t turned out the way she had planned.

Clarke had a way of turning her plans upside-down. But every time, Lexa didn’t regret a single moment of it.

“Lexa?” Clarke had the blanket pulled up all the way to her chin and tucked around herself on the couch. Lexa looked to her expectantly. “We could watch another movie if you want. But can we go somewhere… warmer?”

Lexa processed that request in her mind for a moment. There was only one place in the cabin that was consistently warmer than the living room. “Like my room?”

“If you don’t mind,” Clarke said hastily. “It’s just… I haven’t been warm for the last two hours, and I’m already wearing wool socks and two pairs of pants and--”

Lexa took the laptop from the coffee table and pulled the blanket from Clarke, eliciting a cry of protest. “Why didn’t you mention it earlier? Let’s go.”

Clarke seemed to hesitate in the doorway to Lexa’s bedroom, as she stared at Lexa’s bed and the sheets pulled tightly across it. It may have been a strange sight for her, since Lexa hadn’t bothered to make the bed at all when she and Clarke had been sleeping together. (What was the point, when the sheets were going to end up a crumpled mess a few minutes later?) But when they closed the door behind them and turned on the space heater, the room filled so suddenly with warmth that they were both shedding layers and were eventually down to just their sweatpants and tank tops.

Clarke splayed herself on top of Lexa’s sheets, arms and legs spread as wide as they could go, as if the freedom of not having to huddle under a blanket was too much for Clarke to hold back. Lexa looked away and tried to pretend that it didn’t awaken feelings in her that she had been trying for weeks (months?) to suppress.

“I haven’t been this warm in five thousand years,” Clarke said with a contented sigh.

Lexa sat carefully on the small portion of the bed that Clarke wasn’t taking up with her splayed limbs. “It has been a long winter, but that seems like an exaggeration.”

“No exaggeration. I seriously haven’t been this warm since--” Clarke stopped abruptly and pulled her arms and legs back inward, bending her knees to her chest and curling her arms around them. “Since last time I was here,” she finished softly.

Right. And last time they had been in Lexa’s room, everything had been different between them. Everything had been better. There had been no barriers, no betrayal, no lack of trust and lack of intimacy. And though the winter had been intensifying around them, the snow falling thickly and the wind howling, they had found comfort in each other’s arms.

But now?

Maybe Clarke really did just want to be warm. Or maybe Clarke missed the intimacy just as much as Lexa did.

Clarke must have seen the question etched in Lexa’s expression, because she suddenly snatched the laptop out of Lexa’s hands and began speaking quickly. “So the last movie is Elf, which is actually not my favorite movie, but my mom loves it and I’ve watched it every year. I swear, she has a crush on Will Ferrell...”

But despite Clarke’s attempt at diverting the conversation, Lexa noted the red flush of her cheeks, and the shimmer of her eyes, and thought that no, she wasn’t imagining the shift between them.

When they settled back against the pillows, the extra blanket of Lexa’s bed laid over their legs, Lexa fought the urge to move closer to her. She craved so badly to wrap her arm around Clarke’s shoulders and pull her close. Clarke’s skin, finally bare for the first time in weeks, practically begged to be touched. But if Clarke wasn’t ready--and the reality was that Clarke may never be ready--then Lexa would stay put, so close and yet estranged forever, as much as it pained her.

Still, despite Lexa’s caution, and how Clarke being so near had her heart pounding, and how Clarke gradually rested further and further into her bed, curling up onto the sheets and propping her head up against the pillows, her arms (finally released from their sweater and flannel prison) were smooth and perfect as they held the pillow against her cheek, Lexa struggled to keep her usually rock-solid self control in place.

(Because no one could resist the curves of Clarke’s chest, especially as they were pressed up against Lexa’s bed and accentuated through Clarke’s tank top.)

(And Lexa would have to be stone to not imagine that it was herself that those curves were pressed against instead of her bed.)

But Lexa stayed put. She wrapped her arms, not around Clarke’s waist, like she so wanted to do, but instead around her own knees and hugged them close. At least this way, she would keep her hands to herself, which, as far as Lexa could read, was exactly what Clarke wanted her to do.

Still, Lexa’s iron resolve couldn’t change the fact that the room was exceptionally warm, or that her belly was full of food and whisky. Despite all the other thoughts and desires running through Lexa’s mind (and Will Ferrell loudly eating maple syrup spaghetti on the laptop screen), Lexa was exactly where she wanted to be: by Clarke’s side. She felt her back relaxing against the pillows. Her eyelids began to droop, and her breathing slowed…

**********

Lexa was the most comfortable that she had been in a long time. She was warm, curled up on her side with her arms wrapped in front of her, hair splayed around her face and behind her, and….

Clarke’s arms were both stretched over her stomach, her fingers intertwined with Lexa’s, her body pressed up against Lexa’s back. Strands of golden hair fell over Lexa’s shoulder, soft and warm.

Lexa knew she should move away. She should untangle their hands and limbs and push to the other side of the bed, as far away from Clarke as possible. She had determined to give Clarke space, both literally and figuratively. But, whether consciously or not, they had both done the exact opposite while falling asleep during the movie late last night.

But the way that Clarke’s breath warmed the back of her neck, how her knees fit so perfectly behind her own, how their chests rose and fell in unison….

Lexa gave in. She had been fighting for so long, and there, in the comfort and warmth of her bed, she relented. Rather than push herself across the bed, like she knew she should, Lexa settled back against Clarke. Clarke’s arms tightened around her ever so slightly, and Lexa felt herself nodding off once again.

Later that morning, when Lexa was awoken by Clarke jolting awake behind her, she waited silently to see how Clarke would respond. For a long time, Clarke remained holding her, unmoving, except for her thumb that slid across the back of Lexa’s hand.

But then, a sigh. It tickled the hairs on the back of Lexa’s neck, but she remained still.

Minutes later, finally, Clarke pulled away from her and slid out of the bed. Lexa heard the door open and shut on the other side of the room. The sheets beside Lexa went cold.

In the morning, neither of them spoke of it at all.

Chapter Text

This was one of those days where Clarke wondered what the hell she was still doing on the ranch. Yet another winter storm was rolling through, and each gust of wind cut through her layers as if she were naked. Ice pellets stung her cheeks like a thousand tiny knives. She imagined back home was already preparing for spring, but here, it seemed like it would never come.

Clarke knew she could just go inside to warm up. She was sure that if she asked, she could go into Lexa’s room and turn on the space heaters and pile five blankets onto herself and bask in the warmth for as long as she dared. She was sure that she didn’t even have to ask. She had just done it, plenty of times, before all of that shit had happened between them.

That familiar pang of hurt struck her again, just like it had done ever since she had woken up that morning to find out that Lexa didn’t care about her as much as she had thought. Clarke had been broken up with before, plenty of times, but this had by far been the worst. It hadn’t just been the abruptness of it, or the finality, or even their blurry existence as both working together and falling into bed together.

Clarke had thought they had something genuine, something profound. She knew how good of partners they were, encouraging each other to grow, to let loose, to laugh, to persist even when everything seemed difficult. And that’s what she didn’t understand about Lexa. How could Lexa give up on them like that?

The ranch. Of course it was all about the ranch. Lexa would do anything for it, even sacrifice the feelings she had for Clarke. But Clarke knowing that hadn’t made it hurt any less. It hadn’t lessened the sting that Lexa had suddenly ended what was developing between them. Besides, firing her was just so unnecessary . Clarke had been freaked out too when she had looked at the finances, but no problem was insurmountable. They just needed time to figure it out.

Another gust hit her, reminding Clarke that she was literally just standing in the middle of a snowy field, staring into nothing. The herd was there (what little was left of it), but she wasn’t watching them. She had been doing this a lot lately.

Part of her still couldn’t believe that she had taken the job back. Part of her wondered if she just wanted to suffer, if she thought that living in the same house as someone who tore her heart out was her idea of a good time.

But she remembered her dismally low bank balance. She imagined going home to her mom months before she had told her she would and having to explain why she hadn’t made it to the end of her contract. Most of all, she remembered what it had been like to sit in the cabin that day, watching the sky turn dark and wondering why Lexa hadn’t returned from the pastures. How she had tried to bury her worry under excuses of indifference and downright hostility-- Lexa could take care of herself. Lexa knew what she was doing. Lexa had made it very clear that she didn’t need her help. If anything happened to her out there, Lexa deserved it.

But she hated herself for those thoughts, and they only prompted her to most faster. She was already putting on her thermals and sweaters, already zipping up her coat and tying her boots. She had her horse saddled in minutes, a searchlight in her hand, and they galloped out into the night.

It had been so foolish, going out on her own like that. Why hadn’t she called Anya or at least left a note in case someone came looking for them? But her drive to find Lexa, her belief that something had happened to her, had forced all sense out of her head. As the snow swirled around her in a disorienting cloud, she just followed the trail through the drifts, swung the searchlight from side to side looking for the herd, looking for Lexa, looking for hope. The cry of relief that she released when she had seen Daenerys had been beyond her control.

And seeing Lexa laying in the snow, almost unconscious, almost gone… Clarke could feel nothing except for her unstoppable need to make sure she was safe.

Sitting beside her in the hospital, watching her chest rise and fall with every breath, Clarke was still haunted by what could have gone wrong, how she had considered staying in the cabin that night, how she had even considered that Lexa had earned her fate.

She had almost let Lexa die for her pride. She only gained relief when she had finally fallen asleep.

Clarke was brought back to the present when her horse stamped impatiently next to her, a cloud of vapor emerging from his nostrils and disappearing into the frigid air. It was true what they said: horses could pick up on the rider’s emotions. And now, he was feeling as restless and uncertain as she was. She patted his neck and took an apple out of the saddlebag to give him. She had to reach past the rifle that Lexa now made her carry with her wherever she went. At first, she had thought it was ludicrous that the woman who had brought out so much fury in her was now giving her a firearm.

Not that she would ever do something like that. She may have been disappointed in Lexa, but she didn’t really wish her harm. As if Clarke’s decision to ride out into the night searching for her hadn’t proven that.

Clarke swung up into the saddle, ready to head back but delaying once again as the sun broke through the clouds. Even with the wind, Clarke could feel the sun’s warmth on her cheeks. She closed her eyes and let it soak into her. But that heat, that familiar comfort, only reminded her of how it had felt to wake up, warm and satisfied, in Lexa’s bed that night after Christmas.

She hadn’t been able to shake the feeling of it, no matter how hard she tried. She had woken up in the middle of the night, still a little buzzed from the whisky, with Lexa curled up beside her, her back facing her and hunched, so small and fragile-looking. As tired as she was, Clarke hadn’t even hesitated as her arm reached around Lexa’s middle and settled onto her stomach. She had moved closer, sliding up close behind her, and even in her sleep, Lexa had sighed in contentment and pushed back toward Clarke so that there hadn’t been a sliver of space between them.

It felt too right for half-asleep Clarke to question it. She breathed in deep, the vanilla and something so distinctly Lexa lulling her back to sleep. She hadn’t woken up once after that, until the dim light coming in through the window had told her that it was morning.

And with the sun, with alertness, with Lexa’s warmth so firmly against her, Clarke’s senses had finally returned. (As comfortable as she was, she wished they hadn’t. And that worried her.) She had to remind herself, five times over, that she couldn’t trust Lexa. Things were over between them. For good. Because Clarke was stronger than that. She respected herself. She wouldn’t stay with someone who had proven that she prioritized her work over their relationship.

(Even though Clarke had already decided that no relationship would get in the way of her becoming a doctor. It was something she had wanted since she was a child, and she wouldn’t let fleeting feelings for another person get in the way of that. But was that so different from how Lexa put the ranch first?)

On the pastures, a particularly strong gust of wind made her shiver. She tucked her scarf more firmly into her jacket as she overlooked the cattle from atop her horse. They were grazing through the layer of snow that had persisted ever since it had first fallen in November. She had never thought that cows could be so determined to eat that they would dig through the snow with their hooves and use their snouts as shovels. Their fur was getting weighed down again with snow and ice. She would need to bring a brush with her the next day and clean some of it off.

Before she left, Clarke took a moment to find Daenerys. There she was, as strong as ever, against all odds. She had survived the harsh birth, survived the winter, and survived the sale to the feeding lot. If Daenerys could make it this far, so could Clarke. Even if she was confused. Even if she knew she hadn’t taken her job back just because of the money. Even if one of the reasons she had returned was to keep Lexa safe. To watch over her. To find a way for her to save the ranch, once and for all.

Because as smart as Lexa was, sometimes she was really stupid. Why would firing Clarke, only to take her on again a week later, and then buying back a heifer that she had planned to sell, help her keep the ranch in the black? It didn’t, and Clarke imagined that the ranch was even more at risk than it was when Lexa fired her. Why would Lexa, logical and collected Lexa, make these kinds of decisions?

Clarke knew why. Lexa had told her as much, when she was in the hospital and thanking Clarke for saving her life.

But Clarke couldn’t fall for that again. If she was going to stay there, she needed to keep herself safe, too. She tried to stir up all of those old feelings of betrayal again that, lately, she found were buried deeper and deeper. She didn’t want to let them go. She needed to remember exactly how it had felt that day, how Lexa clearly hadn’t wanted her, how Lexa had tried to cast her out of her ranch. Out of her life.

Clarke tried as hard as ever, but she only felt tears falling down her cheeks. They froze in seconds, despite the winter sun shining on her. She had just wanted to feel that old anger again, overcome her mind and everything else and remind herself of what Lexa had done. Because without that anger….

Without that anger, Clarke was afraid that she was forgiving Lexa.

“Clarke.”

And there Lexa was, astride her horse, riding as naturally as ever. She had recovered from her leg wound faster than Clarke predicted. Her limp was less and less noticeable, although the doctor had said that she would always carry that scar with her. But Lexa wasn’t a stranger to scars, Clarke knew.

(She tried to banish the thought of Lexa’s bare skin, the collection of scars all over her body, each one telling a story.)

Lexa came up to her side with a look of concern. “Clarke? Are you alright? I didn’t know where you had gone.”

“I don’t need to tell you every time I leave the cabin,” Clarke replied sharply. Except that the last time someone had done that, Lexa had almost died.

Lexa looked out at the herd, at the sun breaking through the clouds. “You don’t,” she said quietly. “But I wanted to make sure you’re safe.”

“I’m fine,” Clarke snapped, but she softened. “I just needed to think.”

About you , Clarke added to herself, a little bitterly. Always about you.

Lexa nodded beside her. “I understand.” She turned her horse to go.

“Wait,” Clarke heard herself saying.

The hopeful look that Lexa gave her was nearly enough to break her. And the worst part was that Clarke wanted to be broken. Because if she broke, then she could hold Lexa in her arms like she had that night, her chin tucked against Lexa’s neck, whisky and vanilla filling her nose, the curve of Lexa fitting so perfectly against her, the rise and fall of her chest lulling her to sleep…

Lexa was still watching her expectantly.

Clarke cleared her throat. “I’ll head back with you. If you don’t mind.”

Lexa’s small smile nearly set loose the rest of the tears sitting in Clarke’s eyes. “Of course I don’t mind, Clarke.”

The cattle disappeared behind them, and their horses naturally walked close enough together that Clarke’s leg occasionally bumped up against Lexa’s. She was too tired--emotionally, mostly--to do anything about it. But Lexa wasn’t doing anything to stop it, either.

But of course she wasn’t. Because she still had feelings for Clarke, too. It was so obvious, so glaringly obvious, but how could Clarke ever trust her again?

Still, Clarke just let her leg continue to brush up against Lexa’s. She didn’t have the energy to keep resisting. And maybe she didn’t want to.

**********

Spring may have been coming, but warmer days and still frigid nights had only been a recipe for disaster for Clarke’s immune system.

Clarke blew her nose again. “Oh my God, this is disgusting,” she said to herself, looking at her snot-covered hands. She wiped them off with a third tissue but still felt like she might never be clean again.

She was sick as a dog. Which, she didn’t need a bachelor’s in veterinary science to know, evidently got very sick. She added the soaked tissues onto the ever-growing pile next to the couch. She didn’t know how this much liquid could possibly be in her nose right then, or how her throat was so sore that she could barely swallow, or how she alternated between burning up under the covers and freezing to death.

“Here’s some soup and toast, Clarke.”

Clarke’s head may have been foggy, but that still caught her notice. Lexa? Making her food? That had never happened before. “What kind of soup?” she asked, sitting up enough to pick up the mug of soup without spilling it all over herself.

Lexa sat on the opposite end of the couch, just beyond Clarke’s curled up legs. “Chicken noodle. It’s what my mom always used to make when I was sick.”

It was a nice gesture, even if Clarke was certain that the soup came out of a can. She held the mug in her hands and let the warmth radiate through her fingers.

“You know you don’t have to do this,” Clarke said, even though she was grateful Lexa had.

Beside her, Lexa shrugged and looked down at her hands. “There’s very little in life that a person has to do. It’s what they choose to do that matters.”

Clarke shook her head a little, even as the smell of the soup was making her stomach gurgle despite how sick she was. “Sometimes you’re a walking platitude, you know that?”

“Platitude or not, it’s still true,” Lexa countered softly.

But Clarke still didn’t eat any of the soup. She had to know. She wanted to hear Lexa say it. “So why are you doing this?”

Was it Clarke’s imagination, or were Lexa’s cheeks turning a soft shade of red? She stared hard at Clarke then looked away. “You know why.”

Did she? Lexa had told her she had ‘fallen for her’ that day in the hospital. She had invited her back. She had made decisions both responsible and not to be able to keep her around. But still, she needed to hear Lexa actually say it.

“And…” Lexa began before going silent again.

Clarke looked over to Lexa, who was looking at her softer than before. The look sent shudders through Clarke that she blamed on her fever.

“And?” Clark repeated, trying to quell that stupid, annoying hope that she was feeling. It wasn’t worth it. It was only going to get her hurt.

But despite how Clarke was trying to control herself, to keep those annoying remnants of what she had once felt for Lexa at bay, Lexa’s smile did nothing to help that cause. It was full and brilliant, and Clarke swore it lit up the entire goddamn cabin.

“I’m doing this, because you’re always the one to take care of me,” Lexa said softly. “And now I can finally return the favor. Even if it’s just soup.”

Clarke suddenly needed something to do other than look into Lexa’s eyes and see the warmth there, because she was sure that she would say or do something that she might regret later.

(The worst part was, she wasn’t sure she would regret it.)

She finally took the spoon out of the mug and took a tentative sip of the soup. “Is this Campbell’s?”

Lexa got up from the couch, nodding. “I don’t trust myself to cook without you there. I hope it’s good. And... if you need anything else, I’m here.”

Clarke just nodded. She was afraid to say anything, just in case it slipped to either of them just how much Clarke was realizing that she needed her.

**********

Maybe it was the soup, or Lexa’s near-constant attention that could almost be described as doting, but Clarke wasn’t sick for long. Another day, and she could make food for herself again. The next, she was running to town for groceries and for the vaccinations that they would be giving the new calves after they were born. She really didn’t have time to lay around sick, especially since she was trying to work out her plan to keep the ranch in business.

The cattle were being kept in closer fields, now, so that she and Lexa could keep a better eye on them as their due dates approached. The cows were round as barrels, having only a couple weeks until they would be bringing their new calves into the world. Lucky for them, the sun’s rays were bringing enough warmth during the day to begin melting the snow that had held the ranch in its icy grip for months. It still froze over again at night, but it was a start.

Clarke walked across the field, the snow slushy underneath her boots, and frowned as she watched Lexa tentatively set her hand on top of Daenerys’ head. She had never known Lexa to be overly affectionate with any of the cattle, even Daenerys, but now she was stroking her head and looking intently down at her. It even looked like she was talking to her… Clarke strained her ears to listen and quieted her footsteps.

“There’s so much I want to say and do,” Clarke heard Lexa say and watched as she shook her head. “But I don’t want to make her feel uncomfortable. I don’t want to make her regret staying here.”

Clarke’s stomach sank. It wasn’t hard to figure out what Lexa was talking about, but she wished Lexa didn’t worry about her like that. It was Clarke’s struggle, not hers. She considered listening in for a little bit longer, but her boot crunched into the snow loudly. Lexa turned to her as if startled, taking back her hand from Daenerys’ head.

“Does she ever say anything back?” Clarke called to Lexa as she closed the distance between them in the field. “So far, she ignores everything I say.”

Daenerys, predictably, ran over to Clarke as soon as she saw her. Even as Clarke smiled and bent down to greet her, she couldn’t help but remember that Daenerys would be gone if not for Lexa’s Christmas present to her. It only solidified the plan in Clarke’s mind all the more.

“She doesn’t say much,” Lexa admitted, her cheeks slightly red. “”How long were you standing there?”

Clarke scratched along Daenerys’ neck before straightening up again and raising an eyebrow at Lexa. “Why? Did you say something you didn’t want me to hear?”

Lexa turned defensive. “No. Of course not.”

“Lighten up, Lexa. I didn’t hear whatever you guys were talking about.” (It was mostly true, after all, even if Clarke was now suddenly very curious what Lexa had been saying before she had arrived.) She nuzzled Daenerys’ snout between her hands. “But I am going to borrow Daenerys from you for a few minutes, if that’s alright.”

“For what?” Lexa asked curiously, seemingly glad that they were forgetting about her therapy session with Daenerys.

That familiar doubt and feeling that Lexa wouldn’t go for any of this returned to her. But rather than explain, she leaned down toward Daenerys and looked into her brown, docile eyes. “You ready, girl?”

Clarke could hardly believe it, but Daenerys shifted her body to the side. She would take that as a yes.

Taking hold of the fur on the back of Daenerys’ neck, Clarke pulled herself up and over the height of the heifer’s body. She settled her weight on her back and patted the top of Daenerys’ head. “Good girl! You’re doing it just like we practiced!”


Lexa folded her arms and stared up at her. “What exactly are you doing?”

Clarke was enjoying the confusion on Lexa’s face a little too much, she knew. “I’m training her.”

“For?”

“Your new dude ranch.”

“My what?” Lexa practically choked out.

“Well.” Clarke pulled her leg back over Daenerys and dropped to the ground. “It won’t really be a dude ranch, because you’ll still be running the ranch like you are now. But every once in a while, when you need the money, you can have some no-good city folk like me come experience ranch life with you for a while.”

“That’s crazy,” Lexa said quickly, shaking her head. “Why would anyone want to do that?”

Clarke crossed back to her side, hoping that she could persuade her. She had to. “Because ranches are fun, Lexa. Imagine if you had never seen anything like this before. If you lived in a city and had never ridden a horse or touched a cow. Coming out here would be a blast, especially for kids.”

“But I would have to show them how to do everything,” Lexa argued, her jaw setting stubbornly.

Clarke tilted her head. “I seem to remember you did a pretty good job of that with me last year.”

“But that was you.” Lexa huffed in frustration. “What am I supposed to do? Show a kid how to lasso?”

“Maybe. But think easier. Just being around the cattle would be enough for a lot of them. How to ride a horse would blow their minds. A lot of other ranches do this, Lexa. It wouldn’t be impossible.”

“How am I going to have time to do any of this? I’ll have my hands full as is.”

This was a chink in Clarke’s plan, she knew. But it was either this, or the ranch would go out of business. “Do it during slow times of year. Or during summer, when you have all the daylight in the world to get work done.”

Lexa crossed her arms and looked away, but before she could come up with another argument, Clarke placed a hand gently on her arm. Lexa looked down at it, her gaze softening.

“It won’t be easy, you’re right,” Clarke said. “But believe it or not, people pay big money for this. Even if you only pull in a few families over the summer, it would be enough to make a difference.” Realizing she was still holding Lexa’s arm, Clarke pulled her hand back somewhat awkwardly. “Just think about it, OK? It might be a good option for you. And I can help you get it set up before I leave.”

“You’ve… put some thought into this,” Lexa said slowly, turning away from her and looking out over the pastures.

She followed the line of Lexa’s gaze, but she only saw rolling hills and distant mountains and maybe just a few blades of grass peaking through the snow. She wondered what Lexa saw. Maybe it was the shadows of her parents, or a flickering image of the future she had imagined for herself.

She turned her head back to Lexa. “You didn’t think I was going to let you bring me and Dany back without helping you out, did you?”

Lexa just shook her head. “I’m not expecting anything extra from you, Clarke.”

Clarke was suddenly aware that they may not have been talking about just her work on the ranch. “Listen, I’m still not… happy with how you handled things before. But I know the risks that you’ve taken to try to make things right with me.” Too big of risks, Clarke thought. “I appreciate what you’ve done. But I’m not going to let anything happen to this ranch, if I have any say in it. You’ve worked too hard for it, and so have I. And I think this is your best bet.”

Letting out a deep breath, Lexa crossed over to Daenerys and patted her head. Clarke couldn’t help but smile when the heifer mooed softly. “So where does Dany fit into all of this?”

It dawned on Clarke that this was the first time that Lexa had used her nickname. “Dany, being the diva that she is, can be your spokescow of sorts,” she said. “Put up a cute photo of a kid riding her on your website, and bam. You’ll have an edge over your competition. And the kids can love on her while they’re here. I think she’ll enjoy it.”

Lexa let out a small laugh. “I can’t believe this is starting to sound like a good idea.”

“Damn right it is. I really think this will work. But...” Clarke waited for Lexa to make eye contact with her again before she continued, voice becoming serious. “If you need some extra help, maybe you don’t need to pay me immediately for the last month.”

“No, absolutely not,” Lexa said quickly.

“You can pay me back later.”

“I said no, Clarke.” Lexa’s eyes were stormy. “I won’t owe you money. I can make this work.”

Brow furrowing, Lexa turned to her straight-on. She looked more powerful than ever, braid pulled over her shoulder and eyes bright. Through all of this, her pride was very much still in tact. “Your idea about the dude ranch makes sense, and I will talk to Anya about ways to advertise. But I don’t need your money, Clarke. It’s yours. You’ve more than earned it.”

All Clarke could do was nod. “Let me know if you change your mind. But I’m glad you think that about the dude ranch, because…” Clarke hesitated, wondering if she had gone too far. But she was serious about helping Lexa find a solution. “I asked Indra if she knew anyone who might be interested in staying here for a few days. And she did.”

Lexa’s eyebrows shot up.

“And I invited them to stay here at the end of the week,” Clarke continued, feeling like she was digging herself into a hole.

“You did what?”

She tried her most disarming smile. “They’ll be here this Friday. For two days.”

Lexa ran a hand over her face but otherwise remained calm. “Where are they going to stay?”

“My room. And the kids can stay on the futon.”

“Where are you going to stay?”

Clarke laughed uncertainly. “Well… I was thinking your room.”

Lexa’s rising frustration was suddenly and irrevocably replaced by shock. “In… my room.”

“Just for a night,” Clarke clarified, feeling her cheeks heat despite herself. “If you think that’s OK.”

But Lexa was shaking her head in a way that Clarke could read as nervous. “I could stay with Anya. Or you could. Or--”

“Stop.” Seeing Lexa implode like that was almost laughable, but Clarke knew how weird it might be staying in the same room again. Flashbacks of the morning after Christmas came back to her. They still hadn’t talked about it. “I know we’re capable of sleeping in the same room. We did on Christmas, after all.”

Lexa looked so vulnerable, then, frowning at the ground and staring at her foot as if it were the most interesting thing in the world. “I woke up and you were holding me, Clarke,” she said barely above a whisper.

Somehow, relief rushed through Clarke that Lexa had been awake for that. That Clarke didn’t have to bear the burden of remembering that but not knowing if she should ever bring it up. While Clarke slept like that with some of her friends, notably Raven after a hard night out, she didn’t think it felt the same with Lexa. She knew it hadn’t felt the same with Lexa. Every movement between them, every touch, seemed packed with meaning.

“I’m sorry if it was too much,” Clarke said.

“It wasn’t too much. It was--” Lexa stopped herself, looking back up at Clarke with her beautiful green eyes so full of uncertainty.

But Clarke was done dancing around things. “Say it.”

“It wasn’t enough,” Lexa said, letting out a shaky breath.

Clarke felt herself blinking several times in a row, and she wondered where those tears had come from. She brushed them away with her fingers, laughing slightly. “I was thinking the same thing.”

Lexa reached out to her hand, the one she had just wiped away the tears with. She held it in a tentative grip. “I’m sorry, Clarke, for betraying your trust. I was trying to do the right thing, but intentions aren’t always enough.”

Clarke curled her fingers around Lexa’s, marveling at how good it felt. How right. She hadn’t thought she would ever hold her hand again. “I’m sorry for… lots of things, actually. But mostly just being an ass. I know how important the ranch is to you, but I let myself be angry for longer than I should have.”

Lexa squeezed her hand, and Clarke felt warmth shoot through her whole body. They needed this, so so badly, just to talk and understand where each other had come from, and it had finally happened. Clarke finally felt like they had healed the rift between them.

(And it had all started with Lexa talking to Daenerys, go figure. Clarke would add counseling to Dany’s long list of skills.)

When Lexa loosened her grip on her hand, Clarke almost didn’t let go. Mostly because she didn’t know when she would ever get to hold it again. But she let Lexa’s fingers slide from hers, let her hand and her body go cold, at least for now.

“So who are these people that are going to stay with us?” Lexa asked her, changing the subject.

Clarke felt herself smiling, and for the first time in weeks, it felt genuine. “The Monroes. Family of four, from Billings. Dad’s a chef, mom’s a petroleum engineer. Kids are four and five and, according to their mom, never stop running all day.”

“Perfect,” Lexa said in her most dramatic sarcasm.

But as unfamiliar as all of this would be to Lexa, Clarke knew they could make it work. They just needed to do it together.

**********

After a long day out in the pastures, and then getting Clarke’s room ready for guests that

“We only have two episodes left, Lexa said, full-on lounging on the couch. She was taking up more than her fair share of the space, with her head toward Clarke.

Despite how little room she had on the couch, Clarke wasn’t complaining. They had had another long day out in the pastures, and a long evening getting her room ready for guests. They both deserved some down time, and watching Jessica Jones together that night was perfect.

(But even more than that, there was something about seeing Lexa sprawl out like that. Lexa, who was often so focused, so serious, but was finally carefree enough to lay around with Clarke after their work was done. Clarke enjoyed this side of her. And it certainly had nothing to do with how the way Lexa was laying on the couch, with her legs bent slightly toward her chest, accentuated her ass to such a high degree.)

But Clarke looked away from that and back to Lexa’s drooping eyelids. Her green eyes were unfocused but still so bright. Clarke had to remind herself not to stare.

Ever since their conversation out in the fields, Clarke felt herself gravitating to Lexa more and more. It was becoming harder to keep her hands to herself. The desire to touch her wasn’t new, but the reasons why she shouldn’t were fading away.

Clarke turned down the laptop volume as the end credits rolled. “We should probably stop. Each episode is almost an hour, and I could hear you starting to snore halfway through the last episode.”

“I do not snore,” Lexa said petulantly, her words half-consumed by the couch.

“Yes, you do,” Clarke said, sitting up. Lexa looked up at her from where she was lying, and Clarke tried to control the flipping in her stomach. “You sound like… I don’t know, a snoring baby rabbit or something.”

Lexa just burrowed deeper into the couch with her eyes closed, her hair wild around her head. “Even if I snored… which I don’t… I would sound like something much more intimidating. Like a grizzly bear.”

“A snoring grizzly bear?” Clarke laughed. As sleepy as Lexa was right then, she couldn’t be any less intimidating.

Lexa hummed in agreement. “A really scary one. So scary that you wouldn’t accuse me of snoring, even if it were true.”

Clarke smiled down at her. “You know, you get kind of confrontational when you’ve been sleeping through half of the episode. Maybe it’s time for bed.”

“No.”

“Lexa…” Clarke tried out her sternest, most authoritative voice, but all that she accomplished was Lexa scooting across the couch and resting her head against the blanket covering Clarke’s legs.

Clarke stiffened slightly. Lexa may have taken her hand earlier in the pastures, but were they back to this, back to casual touches (that couldn’t be that casual, based on Clarke’s accelerating heart rate). But still… Lexa’s cheek resting against her felt nice. Clarke raised her hand… let it drop again… but then let herself run her fingers lightly through strands of Lexa’s hair, a hint of vanilla released with every touch.

“I’m not going to tell you what happens in the episode if you fall asleep a minute into it,” Clarke chided so poorly that even she wasn’t convinced.

Lexa just mumbled something into her leg that Clarke couldn’t understand, then reached forward and started the next episode on the laptop.

Clarke held her breath, as Lexa settled backward onto the couch and rested her cheek against the top of Clarke’s thigh once again. She tried to suppress a smile, when Lexa burrowed more deeply to find the most comfortable position.

Just a few minutes in, Clarke heard Lexa’s breathing even out. She laughed lightly to herself, trying to stop her heart from turning into a puddle of feelings inside of her. (She failed.)

If there was any remnant of that grudge that she had been holding onto for dear life, it was gone now, thoroughly smothered by Lexa’s soft snores. Snores that, if she thought about it, really did sound like a baby grizzly bear, the ones that stumbled out of their snowy hibernation caves on wobbly legs in the spring and toppled down the hill head-over-heels.

Clarke lifted her hand to hover over the hunch of Lexa’s shoulders, firmly entrenched against Clarke’s leg now. But she couldn’t hold out for long. She slid her fingers against the sweatshirt that Lexa was wearing, and she wasn’t sure how touching someone over at least two layers of clothes could still feel so comforting. She pulled the blanket that had fallen half-way down Lexa back up and rested her hand there on her shoulder. The episode may have been playing in the background, but Clarke was only focused on tracing her fingers slowly up and down Lexa’s back.

Before she knew it, silence filled the cabin once again, and the black screen on the laptop showed that the episode was over. Clarke let loose a mighty yawn that had Lexa shifting against her.

Lexa mumbled something against her leg that had Clarke smilin. It was absurd that Lexa thought she could actually understand what she had said.

“What was that?” Clarke said, not bothering to hide the amusement in her voice.

“What time is it?” Lexa managed, more clearly.

“Time for bed. Come on,” Clarke encouraged, as she gently pushed Lexa upright with some difficulty. She was a dead-weight.

“But we’re still not done with the season yet,” Lexa argued, unconvincingly. Her eyes weren’t even open. “You promised.”

Clarke stood up and steadied Lexa by the arm. “Funny, I don’t remember doing that.”

“Hmm.” Lexa let herself be led toward her bedroom with short, shuffling steps. “Maybe I dreamed that part.”

“Dream about me often?” Clarke said lightly.

Lexa just smiled so widely that Clarke really had to imagine what kind of dreams Lexa was having about her.

Opening the door to Lexa’s room, Clarke was relieved to feel that it was at least ten degrees warmer than the rest of the cabin. Lexa had turned on the space heater before they had begun their TV marathon that evening, and it felt like suddenly finding herself on a tropical island after shivering all day outside and having to take shelter under five blankets in the living room.

“Come on,” Clarke said, flipping back the covers of Lexa’s bed. “In you go.”

Lexa began to lay down before she spun around and took hold of Clarke’s hand. Her touch was light. “You don’t have to go,” Lexa said, more clearly than she had sounded before. Her sleepy eyes met Clarke’s, with some uncertainty. “It’s so much warmer here. And it’s supposed to be twenty degrees tonight. And--”

“Fine.” Clarke could have put up more of a fight, but… Lexa’s hand was so soft. She squeezed Lexa’s fingers, and it took all her willpower not to stare at how that small movement made Lexa’s lips part. “Only because it’s not fair that you get the warm room and I don’t.”

She stared at Clarke too softly. When she sat down down on the bed, still holding onto Clarke’s hand, the movement was enough to tug Clarke down onto the bed beside her.

(Clarke didn’t try to imagine what it had felt like all those months ago, when Lexa had pulled her down on top of her, and Clarke had been too willing, shifting her hips down and pressing their bodies together.)

But then Lexa’s head was already pressed against the pillow, and she curled up and pulled the blankets up over herself. “Is it gross if I don’t brush my teeth?” she asked, her voice already slurring with sleep again.

“Disgusting,” Clarke replied. She laughed when Lexa grumbled into her pillow. She turned off the bedside light and climbed under the covers herself. “But if you’re disgusting, I guess I am too.”

“Hygiene is overrated.” Lexa’s mumbled.

Clarke turned towards her on the bed but kept her distance. Because she had a shred of self control, dammit. “So you wouldn’t care if I just decided not to shower ever again?”

Lexa just reached back a hand and slapped Clarke’s arm. “No, your hair would get all matted. I like your hair the way it is.”

Clarke laughed, and Lexa could probably feel her breath against the back of her neck, which for some reason only made Clarke shift closer.

But she kept her hands to herself. And Lexa didn’t turn toward her.

After a few minutes, Lexa broke the silence with a whispered, “Good night, Clarke.”

Clarke didn’t respond. She was too involved thinking about how, despite it being a queen-sized bed, they both chose to lay on the same side of it. But she couldn’t sleep like that, with Lexa so close, her scent so intoxicating, her warmth just out of reach. Clarke traced a hand down Lexa’s bare arm, even that small touch bringing comfort. She let herself shift even closer. “Lexa?”

All she got was a mumbled acknowledgement.

“Can I…” It felt like Clarke’s heart was going to beat right out of her chest. “Can I put my arm around you?”

Instead of answering, Lexa reached behind herself and took Clarke’s arm, pulling it back around her. Clarke sighed against the back of Lexa’s neck, never feeling so much relief in her life. With Lexa firmly against her, Clarke felt herself relax and gradually drift off to sleep.

**********

The sun was brighter, warmer, and more welcome than at any time Clarke could remember. Spring had arrived, bringing with it shoots of bright green grass and singing birds and even wildflowers that made Clarke smile every time she saw them. Now, she actually wanted to spend time outside, breathe in the fresh air, let the wind tickle her cheeks.

Lexa’s skin had become pale over the winter, but it was already beginning to darken again as the sun’s rays become stronger and they spent more time outdoors. Her smile seemed to come easier in the spring air. Her laugh seemed to ring out farther. Even though her work was going to be harder than ever this year, she stood up all the taller for it.

As Clarke had planned, the Monroes arrived later that week, and to be honest, it went better than she had even dared to hope. The parents were courteous and enraptured by everything about the ranch, asking about daily operations and the culture and small town. But the kids…

The kids were obsessed with Lexa.

To be fair, Lexa was the epitome of a cowgirl, with her commanding presence and unending confidence and absolute surety in the saddle. They couldn’t get enough of her, watching in amazement as she galloped across the grassland and corralled the cattle into a tighter and tighter group. While Clarke was cooking dinner, the kids talked Lexa’s ear off and needed to know everything about her: who her friends were, what her favorite animal was, whether she liked to watch cartoons. They even asked her why she wasn’t married yet. Clarke paused her stirring in the kitchen and looked behind her, only to find that Lexa was staring back at her. But Lexa cleared her throat, returned her attention on the children, and whatever her answer had been, it was too quiet for Clarke to hear.

That night, when Clarke stayed in Lexa’s room, it was starting to feel normal again. She

hadn’t been lying in Lexa’s bed for more than a minute before she felt strong arms wrapping around her. She settled into them. It was the most natural thing in the world to be held by Lexa.

When the Monroes pulled out of the ranch in their minivan, the kids hanging out of the windows and waving at them, Lexa and Clarke stood in the middle of the dirt driveway waving right back. Lexa let out the largest sigh that Clarke had ever heard.

Clarke prodded her in the side with her elbow. “That wasn’t so bad, now was it?”

“It was exhausting, but…” Lexa glanced over at her, her smile growing. “It was kind of fun, too.”

“Those kids loved you. I’m surprised they let their parents take them away.”

“Kids like me, for some reason,” Lexa said a little self-consciously.

Clarke smiled over at her. “It’s because you listen to them. You make them feel special. You’re good at that.”

Wisps that had escaped from Lexa’s braids fluttered in the breeze, and the bright day brought out the lighter tones of her hair. Her lips slowly lifted into a peaceful smile that Clarke could only return in kind. They were standing side by side, far closer than required by the huge expanse of ranch around them, but it only felt right. They had done this together.

“I never thought that this was something that I could do,” Lexa said. “I never thought I could be good at it. I always thought I liked cattle because they don’t talk back like people do.”

“Except for Daenerys, of course,” Clarke replied, drawing out another smile. She looked down and noticed how their hands were nearly touching. And why shouldn’t they be? They had just tried something that could be the solution to the ranch’s problems. Didn’t they deserve some kind of comfort after that? And what could be more comforting than Lexa?

She reached out tentatively, then more confidently. Clarke wanted this. A lot had happened between them, a lot had changed, but this part, what Clarke felt for Lexa, had not changed in the slightest.

When she took her hand, Lexa looked over at her with questioning eyes. Gorgeous, green eyes that danced when she laughed, sparkled in the sunshine, and conveyed more caring than Clarke thought possible.

“Clarke?” Lexa asked simply. But Clarke knew what she meant. What does this mean? Are you sure about this?

But Clarke wound their hands together more tightly and wondered if she would ever want to let go. “I know I’ve said a lot of harsh things in the last couple months. But I want you to know… I really want you to succeed, Lexa. And it would tear me up if I ended up being the reason why your ranch failed.”

“No,” Lexa objected quickly. “You’re the only reason I still have a chance. You saved my life, in more ways than one.” She turned to Clarke, facing her straight on, and Clarke had never been more willing to just soak in the features of anyone in her life. Lexa frowned a little as she found the right words. “I owe you everything, Clarke.”

Clarke had to swallow twice before she was able to speak. “You don’t owe me anything.”

But Lexa took her other hand. Though the wind whipped around them, and birds perched on top of the barn called to each other nonstop, Clarke felt like everything was still.

Lex’s gaze bore into her, so earnest that it made Clarke’s heart ache. “After my parents were gone, and Costia had left before that, it was just me here on the ranch,” she said, voice unsteady. “Indra and Anya were as good of friends as anyone could hope for, but they couldn’t be here all the time. They have their own businesses, their own lives. I threw myself into work here to keep the ranch running, and to keep my mind off of everything.”

She shook her head then, sighing. “That’s why I didn’t want to hire anyone. I had spent so much time alone that I didn’t want or know how to accept help. I had made it on my own for so long that I was convinced I wouldn’t need anyone else in my life ever again.”

But then, suddenly, radiantly, Lexa smile was enough to make Clarke’s knees go weak. She rubbed the back of Clarke’s hands with her thumbs. “But then I met you, Clarke. And I realized that needing other people was not weakness. I was better with you, so much better. When I say that I owe you everything, it’s not for the ranch at all…” She gulped then and raised her chin slightly. “It’s for me.”

Clarke broke from Lexa’s grip only to place her hands gently onto her face. Her beautiful but still somehow so uncertain face. “Do I even need to tell you everything that you’ve taught me? You’re so determined. You fight for what you believe in, for what matters to you most. I ran away from my problems back home, tried to pretend that I wouldn’t have to deal with any of it if I was a thousand miles away. But you showed me how to face them head-on. How if I care about something, I need to fight for it, too.”

Clarke thought back on all of her days at the ranch. “Remember when I didn’t know how to drive a stick shift and stalled out the truck on my first day? Or how absolutely clueless I was about riding horses?”

“How could I forget?” Lexa said, shifting closer, wrapping her hands around Clarke’s waist.

Clarke almost gasped at the touch. She couldn’t believe they were here, holding each other like this. “Do you remember our first kiss?” Clarke asked, even just the thought of it almost making her lean forward and engulf Lexa’s lips in her own, finally. It had been so long. But Clarke forced her gaze upwards again.

“Of course I do.” Her grin turned lopsided. “I still think it was pretty smooth, driving you out to watch the sunset like that.”

Very smooth,” she said, her arms settling down onto Lexa’s shoulders and pulling her even closer. “Almost as smooth as saying a bunch of really mushy things to me in the driveway just now.”

“I’ve been wanting to tell you those things for a long time, Clarke.” Lexa’s forehead scrunched adorably. “It just never felt right.”

“It feels right now though, doesn’t it?”

Lexa looked at her with eyes full of hope, as if they hadn’t been standing there for the last ten minutes in each other’s arms, as if she still couldn’t dare to believe that Clarke would want to be there with her.

(Which was so foolish. Why wouldn’t Clarke want to be with someone as beautiful and strong and inspiring as her?)

So Clarke ran her fingers along Lexa’s jawline and pulled her close. The wind whistling in her ears, the soft earth under her boots, the sunshine on her cheeks, everything disappeared when their lips met. All that existed was the softness of Lexa’s skin, the press of her body against her own, the slow movement of lips and tongue. She was floating, no longer part of this world, and glad to leave it behind.

She couldn’t tell how long later, but whenever they parted, Clarke grinned at the look of pure ecstasy that Lexa displayed, her eyes still closed and her lips parted. Quite frankly, she was begging to be kissed again.

So Clarke did. Lexa’s lips were every bit as warm and powerful as she remembered. She lost herself in them, let herself pour every ounce of longing that she had felt over the past months into them, and she felt Lexa doing the same. She couldn’t get enough, no matter how much she clung to her or how deeply she explored. She needed this so badly, needed Lexa so badly.

Lexa pulled away, gasping. “You don’t know how long I’ve been wanting to do that,” Lexa said, even as her grip around Clarke’s waist tightened.

“I think I might. Because I’ve been wanting this, too.” Clarke let herself enjoy the feeling of Lexa’s arms around her. It felt good to be wanted, to be cared about, when she knew how genuine Lexa was. She quirked an eyebrow at Lexa as she took her hand. “Want to bring this inside?”

Lexa’s hungry look was answer enough, which meant Clarke was only more surprised when she felt herself being scooped up into Lexa’s arms and carried into the cabin. She couldn’t stop laughing until Lexa placed her gently onto the bed, staring down at her with an intensity that took her breath away.

Clarke was already peeling off her own shirt, feeling heat sweeping through her. The way that Lexa’s eyes roamed over her exposed skin practically set her on fire. Lexa took her lips roughly with hers, as she reached behind her and undid the clasp on her bra. She tossed it to the side and straddled Clarke on the bed. Even just the feeling of her breasts pushed up against Lexa was enough to make Clarke gasp.

“No clothes. Now.” Clarke demanded, unbuttoning Lexa’s shirt and hating how her fingers barely worked. Lexa helped with the final buttons and tore the shirt off of herself. She wasn’t even wearing anything underneath, which sent another rush through Clarke.

She undid the button on Lexa’s pants and zipped them down, before she looked up at Lexa towering over her in the bed. She looked so strong like that, kneeling over her, braid draped over her back and muscles rippling with every movement. Clarke needed more of her, needed more contact. They were moving fast, but it wasn’t fast enough.

Lexa removed the rest of her pants and her underwear somewhat awkwardly, and Clarke could only laugh until Lexa was hovering over her once again. They hadn’t even done anything yet, and Clarke could barely breath. Her body craved her, every part of her. She had never stopped wanting Lexa.

Lexa pulled Clarke’s pants down slowly, kissing her navel, kissing the newly exposed hip bones, pressing lips against the line of her underwear and down her thigh. Clarke had to reach back to the headboard of the bed and hold on for dear life. Her hips were already bucking upward at just the feeling of Lexa’s lips on her skin. She was afraid she was going to come even before Lexa had started touching her.

But it seemed that Lexa couldn’t resist her for long, either. She disposed of Clarke’s pants and underwear more quickly and stared down at her for a long moment. She bent down, spreading Clarke’s legs apart, but before she did anything, she looked back up at Clarke.

“Is this alright?” she asked, her head firmly between Clarke’s legs and gaze so desperate that Clarke had to hold back a cry.

She nodded vigorously and barely managed to squeak out a “Yes.”

Lexa’s smile disappeared when she bent back down, and Clarke felt a long lick all along herself. She cried out, feeling herself shuddering. It was so much, so sudden, and so good. When Lexa turned her attention onto her clit, Clarke already felt herself building. Lexa was grasping her thighs, pulling her upward into her mouth, and Clarke couldn’t do anything except gasp incoherently. All it took was another few runs of Lexa’s tongue and sucking her to send Clarke over the edge. Lexa carried her all the way down.

When she finally became conscious of herself again, Clarke found that Lexa was laying beside her, watching her with a satisfied grin on her face. “I think you enjoyed that.”

Clarke couldn’t even come up with a response so just pulled Lexa into a kiss. She tasted herself on her lips, which only made her pull Lexa even closer against her. “Just come here, you gorgeous, sexy woman.”

Lexa didn’t protest. She laid beside Clarke, stroking her fingers through Clarke’s hair, kissing her forehead. She looked down on Clarke, then, with such soft eyes that somehow seemed to see everything in Clarke. Her fingers paused, as Lexa seemed to decide something. “I love you, Clarke,” she said, her full lips curling into a beautiful smile.

Clarke could only think how lucky she was, to be laying in bed with someone like Lexa, to have her smiling like that, to be this valued, this cherished, this… loved. She pushed herself up and kissed her, hoping that it would communicate at least some small part of what Clarke felt for her.

When Clarke pulled away, she ran her fingers down Lexa’s cheek and wondered what she had done to deserve this kind of connection with another person, and why she had fought against it for so long. “I love you too, Lexa.”

Even though she was still smiling, Lexa looked on the verge of tears. But before any of them could fall, Lexa was holding her close and kissing her all over again.

**********

Clarke was happy. She didn’t need to pretend that she didn’t want to touch Lexa constantly. She could wrap her arms around her in the kitchen when Lexa was pouring herself a cup of coffee. She could risk life and limb to lean over on her horse and kiss Lexa when they were riding out to the pastures. She got to fall asleep beside her every night. She could kiss her until she ran out of breath, then kiss her some more. She got to trace her fingers over the tattoo on Lexa’s arm, the sprawling one on her back, the jagged scar on her leg where the wolf had almost taken Lexa away from her forever. Clarke didn’t let herself think about how much worse off the world would be without Lexa.

Some days, Clarke just wanted to lay in bed with Lexa forever, but that wasn’t possible, especially not now. Work on the ranch was becoming more demanding, and they had to focus on making sure the spring’s births went smoothly. Clarke didn’t believe in prayer, but she thanked whatever forces might be out there that every cow gave birth to a healthy, beautiful, strong calf. There were difficult births, and Clarke had her skills and knowledge of calving pushed well beyond their limits, but she and Lexa did it, somehow.

After one last spring snowstorm, they finally said goodbye to the last of the frozen stuff and were enjoying days in a row of, dare she say, warm temperatures. The tagging of the new calves, vaccinations, and health check-ups had all gone without a hitch, which made Clarke feel like she actually knew what she was doing… and maybe she did. Or at least she was getting there.

Ranch life rolled on, and their dinner and board game nights with Anya and Indra resumed. Not surprisingly, their new relationship was out immediately.

Lexa had opened the cupboard to get dishes and set the table, and when she lifted her arms up like that, her flannel slid up just enough to reveal a patch of skin above her jeans. Clarke slid up behind her and placed her hands on the bare skin around Lexa’s hips, sighing contentedly.

“Clarke?” Lexa put the dishes down onto the counter and turned around in Clarke’s hands. “They’re going to be here any minute.”

“But they’re not here now, are they,” Clarke said, leaning into her even closer and pinning her against the counter. “Which means I better get these urges out while I can.”

She slid a leg in between Lexa’s and pushed against her with her knee, softly at first but with an increasing rhythm. Moving her lips to Lexa’s neck, she left a trail of kisses that led up to her ear, and she nibbled the earlobe hard enough for Lexa to sharply inhale.

Any objections that Lexa seemed to have had before disappeared, as she repositioned herself better over Clarke’s knee and let out a moan that was enough for Clarke to want to cancel the dinner party completely--

Someone cleared their throat. “Ahem.”

Clarke turned her head to see Anya standing in the kitchen holding a loaf of garlic bread, her eyebrows arched practically to her hairline. She hadn’t knocked, of course. She never did.

“I see you two are fucking again,” Anya said nonchalantly She placed a large loaf of garlic bread on the table. “Which is great. Maybe Lexa will finally stop talking about you all the time.”

Anya ,” Lexa growled with so much indignation that Clarke couldn’t help but burst out laughing beside her.

“Oh?” Clarke said, enjoying how red Lexa’s cheeks were turning. She would definitely be teasing Lexa about this later tonight (she couldn’t wait). “What was she saying?”

“The usual romantic shit,” Anya said with a look of revulsion. “But the details are confidential. Best friend privilege, I suppose.”

Lexa took the plates from the counter behind her and wriggled past Clarke toward the dinner table. She placed the plates down with more force than was necessary. “I thought best friend privilege would mean that you wouldn’t mention it at all,” Lexa muttered.

“Best friends don’t let their friend’s significant others not know what a romantic sap you are.”

Clarke laughed at that. She really loved these dinner and game nights, not for the dinner, or for the games, but for Lexa’s friends (and she supposed they were her friends too, now). “I think I already have a pretty good idea…”

Lexa took a deep breath and sighed. “Can a woman retain a single shred of dignity in her own home, please.”

Clarke leaned in and gave her a kiss on the cheek. “You may be a romantic sap, but I wouldn’t have you any other way.”

Lexa’s smiled at her then, and Clarke thought her heart might beat right out of her chest. “Look who’s being the romantic sap now.”

Anyway ,” Anya said, grabbing a cutting board and slicing the garlic bread. “It smells like heaven in here, and I need that lasagna in my stomach stat.”

“Shouldn’t we wait for Indra?” Clarke asked.

“No. Absolutely not.” Aya took a huge bite out of a slice of garlic bread. “If we eat fast enough, she won’t even know there was any lasagna here at all..”

Lexa scowled at her. “We’re waiting for Indra.”

“She needs to learn that showing up late is a cardinal sin,” Anya countered.

Clarke frowned at that. “This is the first time she’s been late to… anything.”

Just then, the cabin door burst open, and Indra walked calmly in with two bottles of wine in her hands. “Don’t let Anya start eating without me!”

Anya just rolled her eyes. “Don’t worry, these guys are no fun .”

Indra caught her breath, as if she had run from her truck into the cabin. She placed the wine onto the table. “You would not believe the imbecile who works at the liquor store now. He managed to break a bottle of wine when he was ringing me up. So he had to clean that up, but he couldn’t find the mop, and then he couldn’t figure out how the damn cashier worked...”

Anya was already opening one of the bottles. “Wait, I think that’s Joe’s son. Yeah, he’s an idiot. No one should trust him with something as sacred as wine.”

And it went on like that for the whole evening. Clarke served the lasagna, the wine poured freely, Indra somehow got laughing so hard that she snorted (which Anya would not be letting her forget anytime soon), and Clarke caught Lexa staring at her more than once (but what else was new).

Things took an unexpected turn in the middle of their game of Settlers of Catan. There Clarke was, minding her own business, strategizing how to block Anya’s road and take over an enticing ore resource, when Lexa’s hand rested purposefully on her thigh under the table.

No big deal, she thought. She knew Lexa enjoyed comforting touches like that. It seemed like a way to remind herself that Clarke was there.

But then the hand started moving. Up her leg. To her inner thigh (Lexa knew how much she liked to be touched there, or better yet, kissed there), and--

“Clarke.”

Clarke focused on Indra, who was staring hard at her. “It’s your turn.”

She cleared her throat, making a quick decision on her move, but a second later she realized that it was a mistake… and that she didn’t really care, because Lexa’s hand was migrating even further up her leg, so agonizingly slowly, sometimes squeezing, sometimes rubbing circles with her fingers…

Clarke gulped. She glanced over to Lexa, who was staring at the board with concentration. But the slightest upturn of her lips told Clarke that she knew what she was doing. She knew the sweet torture that she was putting Clarke through. She knew that Clarke was easy to turn on, and my God, if even just the feeling of Lexa’s fingers against her jeans wasn’t enough to have her squirming in her seat.

But the game rolled on. Indra rolled a six, which granted everyone at least one resource, and Lexa casually took a sheep tile as her fingers completed their journey between Clarke’s legs, and her fingers ran up the length of her over her jeans.

Clarke only realized her sharp intake of breath when everyone at the table--including Lexa, damn her--shot her confused looks. She hurriedly threw one of her resource tiles back into the pile. “I um…”

Lexa chose that moment to start pressing against her.

“Uhhh….”

Anya just raised both eyebrows at her. “If you’re done doing… whatever the fuck it is you’re doing, I think I’ll take my turn now.”

“Yeah. Right. I just took one too many ores,” Clarke said with what she thought was amazing self control considering that Lexa was trying to have sex with her under the table at game night. “Sorry. I’m just a little distracted.”

She threw a glare at Lexa with that, but the only response of Lexa’s was to increase pressure against her clit. Clarke felt her hips rising off the chair in response, and she quickly pushed away from the table and out of her chair, almost knocking it over.

She fairly ran away from the table toward the bathroom, trying to ignore how the throbbing between her legs made walking so awkward. “That wine went right through me, sorry guys.”

Just as Clarke closed the door of the restroom behind her, she heard Indra ask from the table, “She’s acting strange. Or stranger than usual.”

And then Lexa’s voice, so frustratingly calm. “I don’t know what’s gotten into her.”

Oh really. Really, now, Lexa?

Clarke flushed the toilet and ran the sink, as if she had used the restroom, and took some steadying breaths until she calmed down. Returning to the table, she sat down and crossed her legs, glancing over to Lexa and shooting her a challenging look. Lexa didn’t even pretend to be ashamed, but at least she didn’t try to touch her again.

(Clarke was both relieved and disappointed.)

So when the game was finally over, and Indra claimed her victory and reminded everyone that she had now won three game nights in a row, and both Indra and Anya reassured them that they were sober and could drive themselves home, Clarke waved to them as they started their trucks and drove away.

She closed the door. The clicking latch ushered in a wave of silence in the cabin, broken only by the clinking of dishes as Lexa put them into the dishwasher. She leaned back against the door and crossed her arms. “What did you think you were doing?”

Lexa scrubbed the dish vigorously. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Clarke.”

“Like hell you don’t.”

Clarke crossed the kitchen in four strides and turned Lexa around by grabbing her arm. The look of surprise on Lexa’s face was worth it.

“Catan. Wine. Fingering. Ringing any bells?”

Lexa was smiling then, smugly. “I think you were enjoying it. You certainly weren’t telling me to stop--”

But Clarke cut off her reply with a kiss, all teeth and tongue, and Lexa pulled her against her by her belt. Clarke pinned her there against the counter, held Lexa’s calves with both hands and pulled slightly, until Lexa got the hint and sat on top of the counter. Clarke wasted no time in unbuttoning Lexa’s jeans and tugging them down to her ankles and off completely. Lexa stared down at her from the counter, face framed by her hair falling in curls around her cheeks, and the sight of Lexa in only her flannel and underwear set Clarke on fire.

She placed a line of kisses from Lexa’s knee all the way to her inner thigh, and then repeated on the other side. Lexa’s hands were already tangling in her hair. She spread Lexa’s legs wider and concentrated her kisses, nips, and sucks to just outside where Lexa’s underwear was covering, first one one side and then the other. Lexa’s scent filled her and urged her on, but she reminded herself to slow down.

“Clarke…” Lexa complained, as her hands in Clarke’s hair attempted to direct Clarke toward where Lexa wanted her most.

But Clarke resisted the temptation, instead slowly peeling off Lexa’s underwear with both hands, sliding it down her thighs and calves and letting them fall to the floor. She took in the sight of Lexa and passed a hand lightly over her. Lexa shuddered under her touch, but Clarke didn’t increase the pressure.

Instead, she continued to make slow passes over Lexa’s folds, so softly that she was barely touching her, as she unbuttoned Lexa’s flannel shirt and laid Lexa’s chest bare. It was so much that Clarke wanted to just take one of Lexa’s breasts into her mouth immediately, to insert herself into Lexa and hear her moan and fuck her until Lexa was screaming her name.

But Clarke slowed down. She licked beneath one of Lexa’s breasts and stared up at Lexa with innocent eyes. With her fingers, she traced just over Lexa’s opening but didn’t enter her.

“Clarke, I want you…” Lexa said, a little whiny, and it made Clarke temporarily forget how to breathe.

“I’m sure you do.” Clarke migrated her fingers to Lexa’s clit and circled softly, but even that small movement was enough to have Lexa practically jumping off of the counter.

“I want you inside of me,” Lexa finished saying, and the look of sheer need that she gave Clarke got Clarke wetter than anything else she had done to her earlier that evening had.

Giving in, Clarke took a nipple into her mouth and released it with a pop. “But why should I do that, when you were teasing me so much before?”

Lexa was trying to roll herself into Clarke’s fingers then, and she looked at Clarke from under her lashes. “I would say I’m sorry, but that would be a lie.”

It was the look, and the attitude, and God those boobs and the way her abs flexed every time she shifted against Clarke’s hand, but Clarke lost the shred of self control she had left. She inserted two fingers, already covered in wetness, into Lexa, and the shocked intake of breath that was followed by the loudest groan Clarke had ever heard from her. She set a rapid pace that had Lexa rocking hard on top of the counter, and within a minute Lexa was already coming on her fingers.

But Clarke didn’t stop. She maintained the pace, and craned her neck forward to be able to take Lexa’s clit between her lips. One suck and a flick of her tongue later, and Lexa was coming all over again with a cry that almost had Clarke coming, too.

Clarke rested her head against Lexa’s chest, which was heaving up and down as Lexa caught her breath.

“That… was…” Lexa breathed out against her, tilting Clarke’s chin upward and engulfing her lips in a kiss.

Clarke lost herself in it for a long moment, but pulled back and raised an eyebrow at Lexa. “Better than you deserve, considering how you made me suffer through Catan.”

Lexa just took one of her hands in her own and kissed the back of it. “If that’s how you repay me, maybe I’ll make you suffer more often.” But her brow furrowed then. “Unless you really didn’t enjoy it, then--”

“No, it’s not that I didn’t enjoy it.” Clarke placed her hands on either side of Lexa’s waist. “But you need to know, if you ever pull that again, there will be consequences.”

“Consequences?” Lexa grinned.

“Terrible consequences,” Clarke vowed seriously.

But then Clarke was grinning too, and Lexa wrapped a leg around her waist and pulled her closer, and then they were kissing and stumbling back to the bedroom, unwilling to break apart long enough to just walk there, and Lexa sat Clarke down on the bed and straddled her, and…

Needless to say, it was Clarke’s favorite game night yet.

**********

Clarke found herself in Polis again and figured it was high time for another bacon cheeseburger and call with Raven. After her last incident in the diner, though, Clarke decided to order her lunch to go.

Sienne smiled at her, as if at an inside joke, when she ordered to go. “Calling your friend again?”

“Uh, yeah,” Clarke said, rubbing the back of her neck self-consciously. “But I think I’ve learned my lesson in your diner.”

“You’re a bit of a legend around here. But…” She pointed behind her to a sign behind the counter. It said, in big bold letters, No phones . “I had to protect the virgin ears of some of my customers.”

Clarke could feel her cheeks going red. “At least I can say I’ve made my mark on the town.”

She paid for her meal and headed outside to a park bench in a small, one-block-wide park. The trees were just starting to sprout new leaves, and the wind carried that heady mix of warmth and pollen and new beginnings. Clarke loved spring, even more out here, where it truly felt like they were emerging from living on a frozen wasteland for several months.

(It may also have had to do with that fact how Lexa was starting to roll up her flannel sleeves to her elbow. There was just something about Lexa’s forearms.)

When Clarke dialed Raven’s number, Raven answered almost immediately.

“Clarke! Has she fired you again? Because I’ll beat her ass.”

“No, of course not. But I’d really like to see you try,” Clarke said, laughing to herself.

“I could take her. She might have the muscles, but I’m scrappy.”

“OK, my best friend is not going to fight my--” Girlfriend, Clarke was about to say before she stopped herself.

But Raven was too smart not to pick up on it. “Your… what now?” she asked slyly. “You guys are banging again, around you?”

Clarke thought she should at least make the appearance of being frustrated by Raven’s question, but she wasn’t. Not even a little bit. A smile was taking over, and Clarke realized that she was far happier than she ever imagined she would be taking this contract on Woods Ranch.

“Ohhhh boy.” Raven was practically howling into the phone. “You’ve got it so bad ! And I can’t believe it, but the mighty Clarke Griffin got over a grudge. OK, tell me the whole story. I was ready to drive over there and kick her ass, but it seems you’ve got her ass covered.”

So Clarke told her everything that had happened (or mostly everything--Raven didn’t need to know the specifics of how Lexa was able to take her breath away, or the amazing feats she was capable of with those long fingers of hers).

“So you’re running some kind of ranch hotel?” Raven asked, after Clarke had talked about the Monroe family staying with them. “Interesting. Can I come stay with you guys?”

Clarke practically choked as she was eating her burger. “Are you serious?”

“Hell yeah. Teach me how to lasso a cow and let me get Lexa drunk so she spills all of her secrets to me.”

“You know that people have to pay to come to the ranch, right?” Clarke asked.

“Yes, Clarke, I know how a business works,” Raven sighed. “I’ve saved a few dollars from being a TA this year. But I guess you’re coming back soon. Is there time for me to come visit after the semester’s over?”

“Actually…” Clarke said, the idea still running uncertainty through her mind. “I’m thinking about asking her if I can stay for a little longer.”

“Are you kidding me?” Raven exclaimed so loudly that Clarke had to hold the phone away from her ear “ You’ve got it sooooo bad! She totally is your girlfriend! Admit it!”

“We haven’t used that word, Raven. I don’t want to assume anything.”

But Raven just laughed at her. “Oh please. She hired you back and bought you a fucking cow because she’s head over heels in love with you. It’s so obvious, even from a thousand miles away.”

Clarke couldn’t help smiling to herself. She suspected the warmth that filled her wasn’t just from the day’s bright sunshine. “She tries to play it cool, but… she gets this look. It’s pretty much that heart eye emoji but in real life.”

“That’s so disgusting and I love it. You should totally stay for the summer so I can come see you in action. Like, riding a horse, Clarke. Not riding Lexa. Get your mind out of the gutter.”

“I didn’t even say anything,” Clark said with a laugh.

“And you don’t have to. But let me know when you get that worked out, and I’ll figure out when I can come. And…” Raven hesitated nervously. “Maybe I’ll bring somebody.”

“Really?” Clarke drawled, even more excited now. “Who’s the mystery date? Wait, is it that grad student from the pub crawl?”

“I knew she was flirting with me,” Raven said excitedly. “She asked me out for drinks, and, well…”

“Did she take you home?”

“Please, Clarke. Who do you think took who home? I have some serious wiles. And also she likes me. That helped a lot. But she’s so pretty and smart, and she takes no one’s shit. She’s kind of my hero.”

“I hope I get to meet her this summer, then,” Clarke said. Even the thought of staying for the summer made her smile. And getting to see Raven trying to ride a horse? It was going to be hilarious.

“Well, talk it out with Lexa. She gives you anything you want, so it shouldn’t be hard to convince her.”

“That’s not exactly true… but she is a softie, that’s for sure. I’m waiting to see if I get accepted to any of the schools I applied to. Then I’ll ask her.”

“Of course you’re going to get accepted. Probably to all three. They should be emailing you any day now.”

“I know…” Still, Clarke couldn’t help worrying about it. She had applied to some prestigious programs, and as good as her grades were, she still wondered if they were good enough. “I should get back, Raven.”

“Back to your girlfriend , right,” Raven teased. “Well either way things turn out, I’ll see you soon. If you do come back to Seattle, I’ve got a list of bars that I’m taking you too.”

“Ugh, my liver hurts already. Love you, Raven.”

“Love you, too.”

Clarke hung up and stayed on the park bench for another minute, enjoying the sun. She always ached a little after talking to Raven. As much as she valued her time on the ranch, with Lexa, Anya, Indra, and everyone she had met in town, she still missed her best friend.

As she sat there, Clarke watched curiously as Anya’s truck rolled in front of the town’s bar. She saw Anya emerge from the driver’s side as expected, but Gustus the bar owner came out of the passenger door. Anya was laughing at something he had said and placed a hand onto his arm for a few seconds. Despite his beard, Clarke could see a broad grin take over. But before Clarke could get up and cross the street toward them, they disappeared into the bar.

Being an experienced flirter herself, Clarke knew that Anya was flirting with Gustus. That was definitely something she would need to ask her about next time she saw her.

**********

Clarke eased the door open behind her while still managing to keep the tray steady in both hands. The coffee cups were full enough that she had to be careful not to spill them on her shuffle back to their bedroom.

Their bedroom? It certainly felt that way. Although some of Clarke’s clothes and other belongings were still stored in her own room down the hall, everything that Clarke used regularly--her jeans, flannel, boots, and the rest of her layers--were in Lexa’s room. Every time they did laundry, more of her clothes seemed to find their way into the drawers and closet there.

Clarke turned to see Lexa curled up in their bed exactly in the same position she had left her earlier that morning. Clarke was continually amazed that someone with such a large presence would wrap her arms in front of herself and curl her body inward while she slept. For most of the night, Clarke had slept with her own arms tucked around Lexa and had, not for the first time, marveled at how well they fit together.

Clarke had never meant for any of this to happen. Even though she couldn’t deny that she had noticed Lexa’s beauty immediately, despite Lexa’s hostility toward her, Clarke had never imagined them here or the flutter that filled Clarke’s chest when Lexa shifted on the bed, a tiny groan escaping her lips as she slowly came awake.

Clarke carefully placed the tray that carried plates of Lexa’s favorite breakfast foods onto the bed and watched as Lexa stirred again beneath the tangle of sheets. Clarke sat on the bed and scooted over to her back. She ran her hand through the wild curls of Lexa’s hair, which had been much more tame before their activities of the previous night.

“Hey, lover,” Clarke cooed to her, pleased by how Lexa, even in her half-asleep state, leaned into her touch. The first time that the nickname had slipped out of Clarke, Lexa had just beamed at her and engulfed her in a kiss so deep that Clarke had forgotten who she was.

(Lexa hadn’t yet called her anything but Clarke, but she said her name with such feeling that pet names would seem trivial in comparison.)

“Guess what day it is,” Clarke continued. She let her eyes wander down to where the sheet had slipped down from Lexa’s chest. It was a sight that she thought she would never tire of.

Lexa just changed direction and curled into Clarke instead, her arm wrapping around Clarke’s waist where she sat beside her on the bed. Half-formed words tumbled out of Lexa’s mouth, completely unintelligible. Clarke was still amazed how Lexa could wake up with her first alarm before dawn one day, if she knew there was a lot of work to do, but could also laze around in bed for hours and refuse to get up for anything.

Clarke ran a hand down Lexa’s bare back and traced the outline of the tattoo there. Lexa had told her its origins, each circle representing the people who were most important to her in life. Leaning down, Clarke placed a kiss on Lexa’s temple. “Happy birthday, Lexa.”

Lexa’s arm tightened around her, and her eyes finally fluttered open. Clarke watched as they slowly gained focus, and they shifted up to meet Clarke’s.

“Good morning, Clarke,” Lexa said with a radiant smile.

To Clarke, Lexa always seemed vaguely surprised to see that Clarke was still in bed the next morning, as if she couldn’t believe that Clarke would choose to stay there with her. She was crazy to think that, but Clarke was happy to prove to her every morning that she wasn’t going anywhere.

(Until she needed to return to school, but she forcefully put that thought down.)

Clarke let herself be pulled down into a kiss then. It was slow and sleepy, and Lexa obviously hadn’t brushed her teeth yet, but she savored it all the same. It felt like coming home after being away for far too long.

Pulling back, Clarke placed a small peck on Lexa’s nose. “You’re old now.”

“I’m one year and four months older than you,” Lexa mumbled. “If I’m old, you’re old too.”

“All I heard out of that was ‘older,’” Clarke said. Lexa’s eyeroll was completely predictable but still hilarious.

Lexa, her cheek resting against Clarke’s leg, inhaled deeply. “Is that bacon? And coffee? And...”

“You’re gonna have to sit up to find out.”

Lexa ignored her and craned her neck on Clarke’s thigh instead until she spotted the breakfast tray. “Is this happy birthday breakfast in bed?”

“You’re pretty quick in the morning,” Clarke joked, stroking Lexa’s hair behind her ear. “Or maybe just pretty.”

Groaning as if it were the most difficult task in the world, Lexa sat up beside Clarke, and the sheet crumpled around her waist. Clarke didn’t bother hiding the fact that she ogled Lexa’s breasts or her abs that somehow maintained their definition despite Lexa’s love for Clarke’s cooking.

Lexa’s eyes went wide when she saw the spread of food on the tray and leaned forward to bring it closer to the two of them. “You made me a bacon and cheese omelet. And pancakes.”

“Yes. But I make you a lot of food,” Clarke said, handing Lexa a mug of black coffee (Clarke still didn’t see how anyone could drink coffee like that). “You’re actually kind of needy.”

Lexa hummed to her in apparent agreement as she took a sip of the coffee. She closed her eyes in rapture and sighed. “What would I do without you, Clarke?” she exclaimed in a light tone.

But Lexa stared into her coffee then before placing it back onto the tray. She turned fully to Clarke with clear eyes. “What will I do without you, Clarke?” Lexa said, much more sincerely.

Clarke blinked at the sudden change in tone and was held immobile by Lexa’s earnestness. She was frozen, the words refusing to come out.

In the absence of an adequate response, Clarke leaned forward and took Lexa’s lips with her own, hoping that Lexa could feel that she felt the same way about her, that she feared having to leave the ranch, that she wondered how she could possibly fall back into lectures and exams without knowing she could go home to Lexa and curl up behind her on the bed.

When they broke apart, Clarke was pleased by the daze that she had brought out in Lexa’s eyes. But they were still questioning, so full of uncertainty, and full of… something else.

Hope, Clarke thought. Guarded hope.

Clarke cleared her throat frowned, lacing her fingers through Lexa’s. “So… I got an email last night.”

Lexa looked at her blankly, until realization came over her. “From a school.”

Clarke nodded and couldn’t help the grin that overcame her. “I got accepted to Colorado State! I’m starting in September.”

To Lexa’s credit, Clarke could only see the shadow of disappointment on Lexa’s face. “That’s great news, Clarke. I’m really proud of you. That was your first choice.”

“It was, and I’m really excited about it,” Clarke said, even thought that uncomfortable knot of worry was settling into her stomach again. “But I was thinking… I don’t start until September.”

Lexa sat up straighter, resting her back against the headboard. “Right.”

“Which means I don’t have to get my stuff from Seattle and move until August.”

Although Lexa’s face remained an impenetrable mask, Clarke could read her eyes. Unsure. Hopeful. Vulnerable. But whatever she was thinking, Lexa said nothing.

Clarke rearranged herself and set cross-legged in front of Lexa. If not for her ambition to become a doctor, she wondered if she would leave the ranch at all. But even though she knew that she needed to go pursue her goals, that didn’t mean she needed to leave quite yet. She thought that Lexa would support this idea, but she had to make sure. “Would you want me to stay for the summer? Until August?”

In your place against the headboard, Lexa’s expression had somehow quieted even more. “Are you serious?” she asked.

“Yeah…” Clarke said with uncertainty, not knowing why Lexa wouldn’t take her seriously right now.

But then Lexa lunged forward, grasping Clarke by the back of her neck and joining their mouths together. Clarke felt her bottom lip being pulled into Lexa’s mouth, the kiss already setting her on fire. Lexa was usually one for gentle morning kisses, but this was anything but.

“Is that a yes?” Clarke managed to ask in between searing kisses.

“Yes, Clarke.” She was straddling Clarke now and trying to push her back onto the bed. “I want you to stay.”

Lexa hadn’t said stay for the summer . She had just said stay . Clarke wondered why the universe would give her someone like Lexa if she couldn’t spend more than a few months with her. It wasn’t fair. But those thoughts were being dismantled by Lexa on top of her, touching her… and how close they were to toppling the breakfast tray off the bed.

“Wait.” Clarke broke away and gulped in breaths of air. The look from under her eyelashes that Lexa gave her did nothing to calm the aching between her legs. “I love your enthusiasm, but I did not just spend an hour making breakfast just to spill coffee all over it.”

Lexa picked up the tray and placed it on the bedside table. But then she was laying over her again, her smile framed by her sleep-tousled hair.

“You can really stay for the summer?” Lexa asked, propping herself up over Clarke and generally being far too distracting for Clarke to be able to think clearly.

“To help you out,” Clarke said. “And we can handle more groups of visitors over the summer if I’m here. And…” Clarke ran her hands up the back of Lexa’s thighs, then grasped her ass tightly. “I don’t think we’ve gotten enough quality time together yet, don’t you think?”

Even though Lexa didn’t say anything, Clarke thought that her response of fucking Clarke thoroughly for the next hour was answer enough.

By the end of it all, Clarke lay in bed trying to catch her breath, as Lexa disappeared to the kitchen with the breakfast tray and brought back their plates warmed up a few minutes later.

“I was expecting to give you the birthday sex,” Clarke said, looking up from Lexa from the tangled sheets on the bed. “But I’m not complaining, don’t get me wrong.”

Lexa sat next to her and kissed Clarke chastely on the cheek, which was in stark contrast to what she had just been doing. “Thank you, Clarke. This is the best birthday I could have imagined.”

Clarke sat up next to her and took a sip of her coffee. “Who knew that breakfast and giving me a few orgasms was all it took to make you happy.”

“Those are nice.” Lexa took Clarke’s hand and kissed the back of it. “But what I’m really happy about is being with you.”

And if that wasn’t the sappiest, most over the top, lovey-dovey shit that Clarke had ever heard. She adored it. And she adored that she would be able to do this, be with Lexa, for a little while longer. Clarke snuggled into Lexa’s side and told her she loved her again, because she could, and she meant it more every time she said it.

Chapter Text

The rains came heavy that summer. Wisps of clouds coalesced into dark, roiling storms, splitting the sky with flashes of light and claps of thunder. Even so, Lexa rested easy. The sheets of rain made the grass practically shoot up right before her eyes, and healthy grass meant a healthy herd.

Even so, the work on the ranch never stopped: branding the young calves, tending sick cattle, feeding calves by hand when they had to be quarantined away from their mothers, medical exams for the horses, maintaining the truck, repairing the roof after a storm, communicating with the buyers who would be taking the calves in just a few short months…

Lexa tried to imagine doing all of this on her own. She couldn’t. She remembered what it had been like before Clarke, to work herself ragged each and every day, passing out at night and waking up just a few hours later to do it all over again. Although there was still so much to do, Lexa awoke each morning excited for the day… or maybe she was just excited to wake up to hear Clarke’s slow breathing beside her, feel her hand resting heavily on her hip, roll onto her back and gently kiss Clarke awake.

It was all of the above. Clarke made her life easier in so many ways, with her academic knowledge of cattle that had transformed over the last year into practical knowledge; with her tireless work ethic and ability to make light of any situation, even if they found themselves caught in the rain and had to gallop back to the barn to avoid the worst of the storm; how Clarke chose to stay with her rather than return to her friends and family in Seattle; how Clarke could calm her with a touch, excite her with a look, love her with words and without equally.

Lexa didn’t allow herself to wallow in past choices, but it was still difficult to forgive herself for almost ruining everything with Clarke. Especially when Clarke had been right, that there was a way to earn extra money for the ranch, that Lexa could be successful and happy all at the same time. It was the first time in her life that she felt like she had it all, everything that was important to her, finally, even if only for a short time.

Because Lexa knew what was important to Clarke. No, she wouldn’t be content to stay on the ranch for the rest of her life. She had ambition, she had dreams, she didn’t feel the ranch and it’s soil and streams running through her veins. Lexa knew she would have to let her go.

(But not now… not for weeks yet. She could enjoy everything she had ever wanted until the very moment that Clarke was leaving.)

Until that time, Lexa would continue to marvel at how the sunlight danced in Clarke’s hair, how her hips rose and fell in the saddle as she galloped across the grassland, how her smile brought Lexa more peace than she had ever known, how she made Lexa feel simultaneously vulnerable and empowered.

Until that time, Lexa would love her with everything that she had.

**********

Clarke’s hand hovered over the gate’s latch. “I just don’t know if I’m ready for this.”

Still on horseback, Lexa returned back around the three bulls, keeping them in a tight grouping in front of the gate. “Ready for what?”

Sighing, Clarke opened the gate that led to the other pasture, where the other cattle were grazing. Lexa only needed to close the distance with the bulls to encourage them through the gate. Although bulls were generally the least well-mannered cattle in the herd, they seemed to have no argument against moving closer to the heifers and cows. Clarke watched them go with a heavy expression.

“Clarke, what aren’t you ready for?” Lexa asked, as she dropped to the ground beside Clarke. She tied the reins off to the post beside Clarke’s horse and leaned backwards against the fence.

Clarke propped an elbow onto the fence and gazed out at the herd. “I feel like my baby is all grown up. It’s like I’ve given birth to her and taught her how to speak and put her through school, and now…” Clarke’s mouth wrenched to the side. “Dany’s going to be buggered by a bull.”

The concern that Clarke was showing, that Lexa would have called ridiculous a year ago, was one of the reasons that Lexa so valued having Clarke on the ranch (and in her life). “Daenerys is an adult now. She gets to run off and date whoever she wants.”

“But it’s like she’s 18 and doesn’t really know what she wants yet and will settle for anyone who’s not that bad.”

“Clarke, she’s a heifer, not a naive teenage girl.” But seeing that Clarke still wasn’t satisfied, Lexa reached over and tucked a strand of Clarke’s hair behind her ear. She loved that, being able to do these small gestures whenever she wanted. They were a language all their own. “She’s not going to forget about you. And I’m sure you’ll fall in love with her calf, too.”

Clarke looked doubtful for another moment before relenting, a smile overtaking her. “They’re going to be cute. Dany’s passing down some good genes.” But she looked away again and frowned slightly. “Do you ever think about kids, Lexa?”

The question wasn’t coming out of nowhere. After having the Monroe family at the ranch earlier that year, and the Bennetts and Chens the month before, the Woods Ranch had more children running around than ever. More children than Lexa had ever thought there would be.

“I never had thought about it,” Lexa said slowly. The wind was picking up, tossing the little strands of her hair that had come undone from her braid around her face. “Since my parents died, I’ve only been able to focus on the ranch. I haven’t been able to consider anything beyond that.”

“Really? Not even once?” Clarke asked.

“I’ve thought about it, in the abstract,” Lexa said, “but it has never been a practical option. I don’t want to raise children unless I’m financially secure and in a committed relationship. I grew up with both of my parents, with their unconditional support, and I would want any children that I had to enjoy the same.”

“I can understand that,” Clarke said thoughtfully. “And that’s smart, to consider what worked in your own life, with your own parents, and figure out what you would like to pass down… and what you wouldn’t.”

Lexa got the feeling that Clarke was talking around something. “What would you want to pass down?”

Clarke shook her head slightly, her mouth twisting to the side. “I guess… my parents gave me a lot of opportunities. I went to good schools, had lots of activities, was busy all the time.”

“But?”

Clarke leaned more heavily against the fence. “They were never there. They were always working and had crazy schedules. Between that, and them signing me up for everything under the sun, I barely saw them.” She turned her eyes to Lexa then, a little sad. “I guess I would want to give my kids more time. I would show them I cared by just being around, as simple as that sounds.”

Lexa turned to face the same way as Clarke, looking out over the herd, and slid up next to her until their shoulders touched. “I would want to give them more choices than I had. I don’t regret staying here and taking over the ranch--I wouldn’t want anything else--but I never had other options. My parents always had me working here in my free time. They talked about me taking over when they got older. This was always the path set out for me. If I ever had children, I would want them to have more paths, or make sure they knew they could create their own.”

Clarke stared at her for a long moment, eventually leaning over and giving her a short kiss. Still close, she said “For what it’s worth, I think you would be great with kids.”

“One thing at a time.” She inhaled deeply, letting the scent of Clarke mix with that of fresh grass and moist earth. “First, the ranch needs to stabilize. And then…” She kept her eyes fixed on the horizon, blue sky meeting the shifting waves of grass. “There would need to be another parent.”

“Wow, you make finding the love of your life sound very romantic,” Clarke said, amused.

Lexa could only turn her head and take in the sight of Clarke leaning on the fence, the hint of muscle displayed in her arms (muscles that hadn’t been there when she had first arrived at the ranch), her golden hair blowing in the breeze and eyes as bright as the sky and that smirk that Lexa both loved and wanted to kiss away.

But Lexa couldn’t speak. Saying it aloud, that she had already found the love of her life, that if she ever were to have a family, she could see herself doing it with Clarke, was all too much. How could she tell someone who was leaving to pursue her dreams--something that Lexa supported--that she would never find someone else quite like her?

In the silence that developed between them, Clarke’s smirk gradually faded and her lips parted. “Why are you looking at me like that?”

Lexa wrapped an arm around Clarke’s waist and closed the small distance between them. She kissed her slowly, growing deeper, and by the time she pulled away, she was breathless. “Have I told you how glad I am that I met you?” she finally managed.

“Only a million times,” Clarke said, squeezing her sides. “You’re kind of a sap, you know.”

Lexa could only grin at her before stealing another kiss. She and Clarke would just need to take things one step at a time.

**********

Lexa was more nervous than she should have been. Just because Raven had been Clarke’s closest friend for the past four years didn’t mean that meeting her was some kind of test. (But if it was a test, Lexa would excel at it, of course.)

But it wasn’t a test, of course, and she needed to not freak out just because Raven had known Clarke for so much longer and had actually been a part of those crazy college stories that Clarke had told her about. It made no sense to be nervous, and even less to be jealous that Raven had seen a side of Clarke that Lexa never would. So she wasn’t nervous, or jealous, or uneasy, because that would be ridiculous.

But when Clarke burst up from the couch, Lexa forgot how not nervous she was, just for a moment.

“They’re here. Oh my God, they’re actually here,” Clarke said, as she practically squealed on her way out of the cabin.

Lexa took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Everything would be fine. Meeting Clarke’s best friend was an important step in their relationship. And for all she knew, it might even be fun.

(Tell that to the anxiety coiling and uncoiling itself in her stomach.)

She rose up from the couch and walked outside with a determined step She stepped out to the porch ready to accept her fate, no matter what happened. But as soon as she watched Clarke bounding up to a somewhat beat-up sedan, holding and being held by a dark-haired woman in a death grip, spinning in circles…. all of Lexa’s anxiety left her body all at once. How could she be nervous, when Clarke was obviously overjoyed to see Raven?

She looked over to the other woman getting out of the car, Octavia, who was a little shorter than Clarke with long brunette hair. She walked over to Lexa and extended her hand. “It seems like they’re not going to be doing introductions anytime soon, so… I’m Octavia.”

Lexa remembered back to the last time someone tried to shake her hand in her driveway. At that time, with Clarke, she had almost refused to shake her hand, her bitterness about having to hire help and certainty that Clarke wasn’t the right person for the job making her cold. But now, taking Octavia’s hand, she thought how strange that would be, now. So much had changed with Clarke in her life.

“I’m Lexa, the owner of Woods Ranch,” she said, Octavia’s grip strong on her own. That was good--she wouldn’t trust anyone with a weak handshake. “I’m glad you could come out and visit Clarke.”

“Yeah, well…” Octavia looked over to Raven with an affectionate look. “She said there would be horses and shit. I may have grown up in the city, but there’s no way I could say no to that. And Raven was really excited about coming out here. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but she and Clarke are like, best hoes or something.”

Lexa smiled to herself. “Or something.”

Octavia turned back to the other two. “Raven! Stop being rude and introduce me to your best hoe!”

Raven shot her a look but hung an arm around Clarke’s shoulder and walked her over (Clarke was still smiling ear-to-ear). “Speaking of rude ,” Raven said. “This is my girlfriend, Octavia.”

Clarke extended her hand, but Octavia went in for a hug. “Oh no, we’re well beyond handshakes. She’s told me too much about you.”

Clarke laughed as she returned the hug. “I don’t know whether to be honored or horrified.”

“Honestly? Probably both,” Raven said, as the other women stood apart again.

Lexa was just starting to feel like she was on the outside of everything happening, when Clarke came to her side and took her hand. Her smile changed to something more somber, but it tugged at Lexa’s heart harder than ever. “This is Lexa.”

Raven stared at her for a beat too long. She was jutting her jaw, her head tilting to the side at a stubborn angle. Lexa could feel herself being assessed, but she couldn’t blame Raven. She had no doubt that Clarke had told her everything that had happened between them, all the hurt she had caused Clarke.

But finally, Raven’s shoulders relaxed and she enveloped Lexa into a brief hug. She clapped once on her back, hard. “I can’t wait to get to know you, Lexa.”

Lexa thought she understood it, the suspicion and the jealousy. But based on what Clarke had told her, she thought she knew a good way to lessen Raven’s misgivings. “I thought we could all get to know each other over some drinks tonight.”

“Horses and booze?” Octavia said excitedly. “This place is sounding better and better.”

“What are we drinking?” Raven said, crossing her arms and clearly unconvinced.

“For Clarke? Tequila, of course.” Lexa said, winking at her ever so slightly. She didn’t think she imagined the way that Clarke’s eyes flickered to her lips. But she refocused on the rest of the group. “I’ll be having whisky. But I also bought beer, in case that’s what you would like.”

“What kind of beer?” Raven asked, getting even suspicious now.

Clarke had told Lexa what Raven’s favorite beer weeks before. Lexa pretended to forget the name “An IPA… Red something, I think?”

Raven’s face lit up. “Redhook? You’re kidding me. I didn’t think they sold that out here.”

“They don’t, which is why I special ordered it,” Lexa said as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

Raven scrunched her eyes at her but then grinned. “What are we still doing out here? Wait.” She paused and pointed at Lexa dramatically. “Are the beers cold?”

But Lexa just stared at her, quirking an eyebrow. “What kind of operation do you think I’m running out here?”

Raven just barked a laugh, limping a little as they all made their way into the cabin. Lexa had heard about the fall that had permanently injured her leg when she was a child (but hadn’t stopped her from skateboarding and swimming and getting in trouble). And whatever Lexa had maybe been feeling before about meeting Raven was being replaced with something much more similar to excitement for the next two days.

**********

Clarke had made her practically county-famous lasagna for dinner, and the drinks had flowed freely. Lexa had never felt like a particularly social person, but the group of them made it feel easy. There was a carefree back-and-forth in their conversation, an exchange of stories and experiences that led one to the next. Although she had lived such a different life than the rest of them, Clarke served as a sort of bridge between their lives. For every ridiculous university story, Clarke would recall something that had happened on the ranch or in Polis, and Lexa would feel like her reality was included again.

Unsurprisingly, many of Raven’s stories had a common theme: drunk Clarke. With each of them, Clarke would only hide her face behind her hands and, as it turned out, ready a story from her own arsenal about Raven. But Lexa got to hear all about that time that Clarke challenged a bunch of frat boys to strip poker and won (“With only my top off,” Clarke bragged, and Lexa had no problem imagining it); how Clarke had decided to hotbox her car just as a police foot patrol went by (“Weed is legal there, OK? It was fine,” Clarke interjected); and one particular study session they had where they awarded each correct answer with a sip of beer (“It was a good system… until the fourth beer or so,” Clarke said, as Raven rolled her eyes).

But Clarke shot back with her own stories: Raven trying to impress a group of guys by skateboarding past them and falling in the most dramatic crash Clarke had ever seen (“I only rolled twice!” Raven said. “And don’t forget how they tended my wounds afterword. Such gentlemen.”); and Raven studying so hard for one of her exams that she didn’t sleep for three days straight and started hallucinating (“The bunnies were teaching me partial differential equations. It was pretty helpful, actually”).

And Octavia, Lexa decided, was a lot tougher even than she looked. She grew up in a tiny studio apartment with her mom and brother; was only able to attend college because she earned a full-ride soccer scholarship; told off a physics major at the bar who argued that her sociology degree was worthless (“I told him that sociology was a science, just like physics, and explained to him what the scientific method was in excruciating detail for the next half hour); and punched a man in the kidney on the dance floor after he decided to dance with her without her consent (“I had seen him try the same thing with three other women. He deserved it.”).

And Lexa? She found herself talking about what it was like to go to a high school with eighty people (“We knew whenever someone started dating less than ten minutes after it happened.”); how she had participated in an amateur rodeo until she was seven years old (Clarke looked at her like she was scandalized--she hadn’t told her about that yet, and for obvious reasons… the outfits had been mortifying); and how she had once attended a party that was literally a group of people standing in the middle of a field, lighting anything they had in their trucks on fire, and drinking until they were blazing drunk and passed out in the back of their trucks (Lexa left early. The party had been Anya’s idea, of course).

But as the evening was winding down, Clarke offered to show Octavia what kinds of shows she had on her laptop, and Raven tapped Lexa on the shoulder. “Want to get some fresh air?” she said, grabbing another beer from the refrigerator.

Lexa nodded and followed her out of the cabin. The night air was brisk, but after being in the summer heat all day, Lexa was grateful for it. She sat on the bench and motioned beside her. Raven sunk down next to her and propped her feet up onto the porch railing.

“Not a bad life you have out here, Lexa, I’ve got to admit,” she said, taking a swig of her beer.

Lexa swirled her glass around in a tight circle, but it was mostly ice at this point. “It has its advantages. A few more, since Clarke arrived.”

Raven lolled her head to the side to look at her. “You like her.”

But Lexa just smiled. “I love her.”

“Oooh boy,” Raven said, dropping her feet back down in front of her. “Listen, I was this close to coming out here and beating you up a few months ago.” She held her fingers an inch apart from each other.

“I know I hurt her, and I regret that.” She knew this matter was between her and Clarke, but she understood why Raven was worried. “I don’t know if things will ever be simple between us, but Clarke is safe with me.”

“Here’s the thing.” Raven took another sip of beer. “Back in college, Clarke used to date and hook up with a lot of people. Like, a lot .”

“That’s… nice,” Lexa said. “But I don’t need to hear the details.”

“No, hear me out.” Raven turned on the bench, looking at her more intently. “She’s dated a lot of people, but I’ve never seen her light up like she does around you.”

Lexa’s throat was suddenly very dry. She drank down the watered down whisky in her glass in one go, just to be able to speak. “I’ve never been happier than I am now with Clarke.” Her voice was raspier than she expected.

“You don’t really sound it, buddy.” Raven clapped a hand onto her back, but less hard than she had during their hug earlier that day. “But I get it. It’s got to be overwhelming.”

Lexa leaned back on the bench, looking out over the driveway, the shadow of the barn, the glint of stars in the dark sky. “I’m not sure how much Clarke has told you about me. I was doing the same work before she came. Managing cattle, selling them, just trying to make ends meet.”

Lexa cleared her throat, glancing over to Raven. “But after Clarke arrived, everything started to make sense. Why I was doing it. Everything was a burden before she came. I was working here out a sense of duty, but with her, everything came alive. Me, my love for the ranch, my love for her… I know I can survive without Clarke, but I’m not satisfied with just surviving anymore. I don’t think I’ll be satisfied ever again without her.”

Raven watched her with her mouth hanging open, but after Lexa went silent, she closed it again and finished her beer. “Thanks for opening up about that. I don’t really know what to say, except it sounds like you don’t want her to leave next month.”

“Of course I don’t want her to leave,” Lexa said, looking out into the darkness beyond the porch again. “But I also trust her to do what’s right for herself. And right now, I think that means going to school and becoming a doctor.”

Raven whistled low. “You guys got some star-crossed lovers shit going on, which I don’t envy. At all. But, for what it’s worth…” Raven’s mouth twisted to the side as she looked at her. “I’m rooting for you guys, whatever ends up happening between you. Because you support her, and she goes on and on about you, and really, I just want to visit this ranch again. It’s dope.”

Lexa smiled over at her. “You’ve barely seen any of it yet.”

“But I’ve got some good vibes out here, Lexa. Good vibes.”

They were both silent for a long moment. Insects hummed in the grass beyond the porch, and Lexa found herself getting lost in her thoughts.

But Raven turned to her with a serious but odd expression. “So you used to do rodeos, huh?”

Lexa rolled her eyes. “I knew I shouldn’t have told you about that.”

“Ooooh, there’s got to be photos.” Raven was literally sitting on the edge of her seat. “You have to show me. Now.”

Lexa got up abruptly and pointed at Raven’s empty can. “Why don’t I get you another beer instead?”

“That is a pathetic excuse for a distraction tactic.” Raven was back on her feet as well and opening the door for her. “The sooner you give in, the less annoying I’ll have to be.”

Lexa took a deep breath and let it out. “One photo.”

Raven laughed in victory and burst into the cabin yelling, “Lexa’s going to show us all her childhood photos!”

And of course she did. Because Clarke was looking at her with a pleading look that made Lexa’s knees weak, and Lexa had no intention of hiding any part of herself from the woman she loved. Even if there was a photo of her dressed as a rodeo clown.

**********

They didn’t have enough horses for everyone to ride together, so she and Clarke woke up early the next morning and corralled the cattle into fields closer to the ranch. The cool morning air was magic on Lexa’s skin, such a relief from the days that were becoming smoldering. And being alone with Clarke, if only for a couple of hours, was more relaxing than anything else Lexa could imagine.

On their way out to the pastures, the sun just above the horizon and saddles creaking and horses breathing steadily, Clarke looked over to her. “I saw you and Raven had a long talk outside last night.”

Lexa swayed gently in the saddle, back and forth, and was pleased to note how comfortably Clarke rode now as well. It seemed to take her no effort at all. “We talked about you, of course.”

Clarke laughed lightly to herself. “Of course.”

“I think she wanted to assess how much I care about you.”

“That sounds like Raven.” Clarke paused, looking over at Lexa apologetically. “She wasn’t too… pushy, was she?”

“No, she was fine.” Lexa let her horse inch closer to Clarke’s, to where Lexa’s leg was brushing up against her. “I really don’t mind telling people that I’m in love with you. “

Clarke gave her a fond look. “And I really don’t mind hearing you say that. Lexa--” Clarke stopped abruptly and shook her head. “This probably isn’t the best time to talk about this.”

“What is it?”

Clarke took in an unsteady breath. “What do you think about long distance relationships?”

Lexa stared at her, how the morning light lit up her cheeks so gently, how her hair tied back behind her head rocked side to side with every step, how she looked like she belonged out here. She suddenly wanted to kiss her. “I think that I’ll do whatever it takes to be with you.”

“I’m glad you feel that way, because…” Clarke’s smile grew, bright enough to light up Lexa’s life. “I don’t think I’m quite done with you yet.” She became more somber, sending a shiver through Lexa. “I don’t know if I ever will be.”

Lexa wished that they weren’t riding, so that she could hold Clarke and kiss her and show her what it meant to her to hear her say that. “I never wanted to end things when you leave here, Clarke. I don’t think I could.”

“Well good, because now you’re going to be stuck with me for a little bit longer.”

“How will I manage?” Lexa said, grinning over at her, until she considered what this would really mean for them. “I’ve never done this before. Fallen in love with someone who insists on leaving me.”

“You’re making it sound so much more dramatic than it really is. But I haven’t done this either. I’ve had friends who’ve tried long distance relationships, and…” Clarke let out a small laugh. “They all said it sucked.”

“We don’t have many other options,” Lexa said, frowning. “Unless you can become a doctor through correspondence.”

“I think they call it online school now, Lexa. And no. There are labs, and a practicum. I’ll definitely need to be there.”

“And I definitely want to be with you, in whatever way I can.” Lexa had never been more sure about something in her life. “So we should do this, even if it’s hard.”

“We’ll need to be very open with each other. Communication is important.” Clarke gave her an apologetic look. “We haven’t always been great at that.”

“No… but we’ve gotten better,” Lexa replied. “We have phones and the internet. I can figure out how to use a webcam.”

Clarke smirked at her. “Sometimes it’s like you’re 80 years old. You’re like a grandma wrapped up in a hot young body.”

“I think that still counts as a compliment?”

They were coming up to the herd now, grazing lazily in the early morning light. Lexa pulled her horse to a stop, Clarke doing the same beside her. She let Clarke’s beauty wash over, struck again by the fact that Clarke wanted to still be with her, even if she couldn’t physically stay with her.

“Clarke.” Lexa let her swirling thoughts take shape before she continued. “What does this mean for after you’re done with school?”

Glancing up at the sky, Clarke let out a shaky breath. “I wish I knew. Four years is a long time. I don’t mean to be confusing, or lead you on, but I honestly don’t know.”

She dismounted and stood in the knee-height grass, looking over the herd. Lexa joined her, standing by her side, and Clarke took her hand.

She looked over to Lexa, brow furrowed. “I know how much can change in one year. How much could change in four?”

Leaning over, Lexa laid a long kiss on her temple. “Dating long distance is just the first step. If we want to take more steps, we can.”

Clarke gave her a lingering look before placing her hand into the soft hairs at the nape of Lexa’s neck. “Have I told you what a great girlfriend you are?” She pulled her closer, kissing her gently. She spoke close to Lexa’s lips. “But you’re right. One step at a time.”

Lexa leaned in, reuniting their lips and letting the shape of her mouth and glide of her tongue seal the words between them. She clung to Clarke’s waist, the flare of her hips familiar beneath her fingers, the press of her body both comforting and sending a shock through her system.

When Clarke pulled away, her eyes were dark. She cocked an eyebrow at her. “Do you think it’s inappropriate for us to have sex tonight with our friends in the next room?”

“Very,” Lexa said, even as her grip on Clarke’s waist tightened.

“Want to do it anyway?”

Lexa just grinned. She knew it was answer enough.

**********

The rest of the visit was a whirlwind. Raven fell in love with Daenerys in less than a second, which was no surprise. She and Clarke took no fewer than ten selfies with her, and then Octavia got jealous and jumped into their photo, and then everyone was yelling for Lexa to get in the photo too. Somehow, Daenerys stayed calm the entire time and looked directly into the camera.

More surprising was how quickly Octavia learned how to ride a horse. Lexa barely showed her anything, before she started trotting around the field and shouting back to Raven. “Hey babe, look how amazing I am!”

Of course, Raven had to climb up into the saddle and prove that horse riding couldn’t be that hard if Octavia was doing it. She brushed off Clarke’s instructions and tried to make her horse meet Octavia on the other side of the pen… to no avail. Her horse began meandering around and eating grass instead, which had Octavia in stitches as she walked her horse around her in circles.

They even convinced Lexa to let them do some target practice on the other side of the cabin. This time, Lexa didn’t let anyone skip her instructions and showed them how to operate the rifle safely.

By the end of it, Raven held the rifle almost reverently in her hands. “It’s like… I can feel the Second Amendment coursing through my veins.”

Octavia shot her a look. “Are you going to buy one when we get home?”

Raven just made a face and handed the rifle back to Clarke. “Hell no. These things are dangerous.”

That night, Clarke proposed going out to the bar in Polis, and the other women enthusiastically agreed. Clarke looked over to Lexa, the secret of their almost-first-kiss in the bar hovering between them. “Care for a drink?” she asked, her far too sultry to be fair.

But Lexa struggled and exercised some self control (which was exceedingly hard to do when Clarke was looking at her like that). “I should get some work done tonight. But I’m sure you’ll have a great time.”

Clarke bent over, leaning an arm on her shoulder and whispering in her ear. “I’m going to get you out there before I go, you know. And I still haven’t paid you back for what you did that game night.”

Lexa remembered how she had traced her hand up Clarke’s thigh under the table that night, how Clarke had been twitching at the slightest pressure. That, and the tickle of Clarke’s breath on her neck now, were almost enough to convince her to go. “I’m looking forward to it,” Lexa said, pivoting in her chair so her lips were aligned with Clarke’s, but she kept her distance. “But not tonight.”

“Your loss,” Clarke said, eyes locked on Lexa’s lips. But she backed away and yelled towards Raven and Octavia’s room. “Come on! Tonight’s $4 pitchers and bingo night!”

After the women got dressed (Clarke in a blouse cut so low it was almost a crime) and left, Lexa returned to the barn and saddled up her horse. She moved the herd back away from the barn into greener pastures, ones that still had abundant growth and hadn’t already been consumed that year. She took the time to groom both horses thoroughly, and when dusk fell, she brought the rifle inside and cleaned it at the table.

She had let her mind go blank, let herself be absorbed in every task and movement. But by the time she was done, Lexa was struck full-force by her new reality: Clarke was leaving the ranch, but she wasn’t leaving her .

Lexa had barely let herself hope for this. She had known that Clarke was made for more, that she needed to pursue her goals and that they couldn’t be accomplished on the ranch. But their discussion had opened up so many more possibilities that Lexa’s heart had trouble processing. Could she dare hope that Clarke would still love her in four years?

(It was a given that she would still love Clarke in four years. There was no alternative.)

But Clarke… she would be in a new city, a new group of people, new friends. People who might understand where she comes from better. People who share her experiences. Would she want to stay with someone like Lexa, with her ranch in the middle of nowhere, this one life that she had known, and likely the only life she would ever know?

Lexa knew she wasn’t inferior. She was independent and proud. But the real question was, was she enough for Clarke?

Outside, the truck roared back into the driveway and brought Lexa back to where she was: in her kitchen, the rifle parts spread out in front of her on the table, a mug of tea forgotten beside her. A moment later, Octavia and Raven burst into the cabin singing.

“Hey if the sun don't come up tomorrow

People I've had a good time

I'm just laid up here in a country state of mind.”

Clarke came in after them with an apologetic look to Lexa as she hung the keys on the hook next to the door.

“Lexa!” Raven yelled at her, clearly more than a little intoxicated. She was carrying a… package of beef. She threw it down onto the table next to the rifle parts. “I won bingo! And look what they got me!”

Lexa stared at it for a moment. “Wow, they gave you… meat.”

“Hey, sound a little more excited. I defeated five old men to get this.”

Clarke patted Raven on the shoulder. “Why don’t you put the meat in the fridge and we can get you in bed?”

“Better idea,” Octavia said with a sly smile to Raven. “We should cook it right now.”

“Oh my God yes.” Raven was already searching through cupboards for a pan. “It’s the next best thing to drunken McDonald’s. Which, for the record, doesn’t exist in Polis.”

“Do you guys need any help?” Clarke asked, seeming to be torn between amused and terrified.

Raven just brushed her away with a hand, humming under her breath. Octavia started humming with her louder and louder, until they burst out into song again.

I'm just laid up here in a country state of mind

Catching these fish like they're going out of style

Drinking this homemade wine.

“OK,” Clarke drawled, looking over to Lexa again and frowning down at the table and rifle. “Should I be worried that you’re taking guns apart at midnight?”

But Lexa was already putting it back together. She had done it so many times growing up that it didn’t take long. She replaced the trigger lock and looked up to find Clarke staring at her. “Is something wrong?”

Clarke walked past her, tracing a finger along her arm and up to her shoulder. “Put the gun away and come to bed,” she said quietly.

But Raven and Octavia howled in the kitchen, despite how busy they seemed to be throwing the slab of meat into a frying pan. “Clarke’s getting some,” Raven announced.

Clarke just smiled with a suggestive eyebrow raise and took Lexa’s hand as soon as she had replaced the rifle in its place near the door. “Don’t burn the house down,” she called back to the kitchen as she dragged Lexa toward their bedroom.

The breath left her lungs when she felt herself pushed back against the closed door of their room. Clarke held her there by her arms and didn’t seem in a hurry to let go anytime soon. Neither of them had turned the light on, and Lexa could feel more than see Clarke’s body pressing up against her own in the faint moonlight filling the room.

“Did you miss me?” Lexa asked, testing the grip that Clarke had on her arms, but Clarke pushed against her with enough force to keep her there against the door.

“No.” The answer was belied by Clarke’s lips brushing against her jawline and down to her neck. “But I do remember what we talked about earlier.”

Rather than fighting against her grip, Lexa could only tilt her chin away to give Clarke better access to her neck. She sighed when Clarke started sucking her skin, even if she was afraid of the mark it might leave. “I remember too. And we decided this was inappropriate.”

She could feel Clarke smile against her. “And that we were gonna do it anyway.”

Their mouths connected for just a few seconds, before Clarke pulled her from the door and backed her up to the bed, pushing her backwards. Lexa fell with a laugh as she bounced on the bed, but her laughter stilled at the sight of Clarke crawling toward her and on top of her. Clarke perched above her, staring down at her, her hair falling down in rivers on either side of her head.

Lexa was overwhelmed by the weight of Clarke’s gaze. It carried on forever, and the more that Lexa looked, the more lost she became in it. When Clarke lowered down toward her, Lexa felt like she was being swept away. The kiss did nothing to ground her, only making it seem like she was floating and might never fall back to Earth ever again.

In that moment, Lexa felt like more than enough.

**********

It was an extraordinarily hot day. Summer was in full-swing, bringing with it long days, easy travel across the plains, and a constant stream of sweat down Lexa’s back that only worsened as the sun’s rays intensified. Lexa had taken to wearing her cowboy hat to keep the worst of the heat off of her face and neck. One morning, after she had filled up her water bottles and packed her lunch for the day, she flipped the hat onto her head only to find Clarke staring at her.

“I still think it’s unfair that you get an awesome hat and I don’t.” Clarke had said with hands on her hips.

Lexa ran a hand along the rim of it, tilting the end slightly toward Clarke. “What you’re saying is, you think my hat is awesome?”

“So not the point, Lexa.” She plucked the hat from Lexa’s head and placed it on her own. It perched on the top of her head. “You have to admit, I can pull this look off pretty well.”

At the sight of Clarke wearing her hat--the hat that she had worn ever since early high school--Lexa gulped and reached forward, straightening the hat on Clarke’s head. “You can pull off any look, Clarke.”

“You big flirt,” Clarke said, grinning. She pulled Lexa forward by her lightweight flannel with both hands. She switched to her absolute worst accent, some conglomeration of cowboy and southern belle. “I reckon this rancher is ‘bout to get herself kissed.”

Lexa went willingly, Clarke’s lips flowing against hers like waves on a lake. At some point, the hat fell off of Clarke’s head, and Lexa somehow had the attention to catch it. She replaced it on Clarke’s head and took a step back, assessing. “It’s a little small on you. Come on.”

She took Clarke’s hand and led her into their bedroom. She went into the back of the closet, and it didn’t take long for her to find what she was looking for. She held out the hat with its well-worn felt and leather band. “Try this on.”

Clarke turned the hat in her hands, frowning. “This hat has really been around.”

Lexa, suddenly self-conscious, held her hands in front of herself. “It was my mother’s.”

Clarke stopped stroking the felt and held the hat like it was something sacred. “Are you serious? I can’t wear your mom’s hat. What if it blows off my head, or gets trampled by cattle, or--”

But Lexa just took the hat out of her hands and placed it gently atop her head. It fit her perfectly. “This hat has survived far worse than that. She told me once that it fell off while she was riding, and one of the bulls attacked it with his horns. If this hat can survive that, I’m sure it can survive whatever you throw at it.”

Clarke still looked unsure. “But it was your mom’s.”

Lexa smiled at her, pulling the hat’s cords snug around Clarke’s chin. “And I want you to wear it.”

Clarke gave her the oddest smile then, her lips tight and brow furrowed. Her voice was quiet. “How are you so good to me?”

It almost physically hurt Lexa to hear that kind of uncertainty in Clarke, to know that she didn’t feel worthy. She gently rested the hat onto Clarke’s back, secured around her throat by the cord. Leaning forward, Lexa kissed the top of her head and drew her into her arms. “It’s because you deserve it. You deserve more, but this is all that I have to give you. And I loved my mom. It only makes sense to give you something that she wore.”

Clarke let herself be held. But after a few moments, she beat lightly against Lexa’s chest. “Leave it to you to take me whining about not having a hat and turn it into something sappy and beautiful.”

Lexa laughed against her, kissing the top of her head again. “I’ll take that as a compliment, Clarke.”

Every day after that, rain or shine, Clarke wore that hat. And each time, it only reminded Lexa of how proud her mother would be if she could meet Clarke.

**********

It had all started with Lexa reading a book on the couch and Clarke surfing the internet on her laptop next to her. Clarke turned the screen toward her and looked at her critically. “What do you think about dildos?”

Without warning, a sudden and very convenient cough racked through Lexa, so that she didn’t have to answer immediately.

Clarke’s smile continued to grow the longer that Lexa went on. “I’m not sure how to interpret you almost coughing to death.”

“It’s…” Lexa got control of herself and looked back to the laptop. The dildo took up most of the screen. “I just wasn’t expecting that.”

“No one ever expects dildos. But now you are, so now we can talk about it. What do you think?”

Lexa scratched the back of her neck self-consciously. “I’ve never really used one.”

“Would you want to?” Clarke asked, as straight-forward about sex as always. She clicked to another tab on her laptop. “And what do you think about harnesses?”

Lexa’s eyebrows shot up. It wasn’t that she was inexperienced in sex, per se… but then again, she had only had sex with two people in her life, and one of them was Clarke. And she and Costia had never used sex toys. She looked more closely at the screen. “Is that made out of leather?”

Clarke rolled her eyes. “Of course you care about that. Yes, it’s leather, and made right here in the good ol’ US of A. Most importantly, it fits multiple sizes, but I was thinking about a six-inch.”

“Does that say $100?” Lexa sat back on the couch again, not trying to hide her skepticism. “That’s a lot of money for something I can just do with my fingers.”

“It’s different,” Clarke explained, giving her an easy smile that made her weak. “It’s… bigger, for one thing. A lot fuller. And it keeps your hands free for other things.” Her eyebrow raised suggestively. “But it’s just something else to try, if you want to.”

“Will I be the one wearing it?”

“I’d like you to. But I can wear it too. I’ve done it before.”

To be honest, strap ons were just about the furthest thing from Lexa’s mind. But the idea of Clarke wearing a harness was… interesting. She couldn’t decide if it was anything beyond that. Then she imagined herself wearing it, having Clarke naked in front of her, being able to hold onto her hips or breasts while fucking her, being able to translate the movement of her hips into Clarke’s body… “I could try wearing it, but I don’t want you to. At least for now.”

“Fair enough,” Clarke said, as she slid across the couch towards Lexa and kissed her behind her ear. “I’ve been thinking about this for a while. I love your fingers, don’t get me wrong.” She picked up Lexa’s hand and kissed her fingers. “But there’s something about you with a huge-ass dildo between your legs. I think it would be hot.”

“I guess we should give it a try, then.”

With Clarke still holding her hand, Lexa ran her fingers along the side of Clarke’s mouth. When Clarke’s lips parted, Lexa traced her finger into her mouth and felt Clarke’s tongue running against it. When Clarke’s mouth closed around it and sucked, Lexa knew that this was about to get out of hand.

(It did, in the best way possible. But Clarke ordered everything they would need for this experiment once they were done. She said it was for science, but Lexa just laughed and kissed her again.)

**********

Lexa looked at herself in the bathroom mirror. It was ridiculous.

“Lexa! Are you ready yet?” Clarke called from their bedroom.

She gave herself an experimental shake. The harness stayed in place, but the strap-on attached to it gave an up-and-down wobble that felt strange against her pelvis. She squatted down a few times with it, tried to get used to the leather against her hips and thighs. She thought that she might consider it a part of herself, eventually, but for now, it was all just unfamiliar weight that sloshed around whenever she moved.

Lexa figured that this was as good a time as any. She straightened her T-shirt and tested the straps on the harness again. She left the bathroom and had to walk with a wider but awkward gait to accommodate her new hardware.

Standing in the doorway, Lexa stared down at herself. “Does this look right to you?”

After many seconds of silence, Lexa looked up again to find Clarke’s gaze sliding all up and down her body. Clarke herself was laying in bed, completely naked, her skin pale against the sheets.

Clarke finally found her voice as her eyes found Lexa’s. “Very right. Come here.”

Lexa slowly made her way toward the bed, and she watched Clarke’s eyes widen as they fixated on the strap-on bouncing in the harness. She climbed onto the bed and made her way on top of Clarke, propping herself up on her hands and knees.

Clarke looked up at her with a growing smile. “I like that you are trying to protect your modesty by wearing a T-shirt above your new cock, but I don’t think it’s really working.”

“Want it off?” Lexa asked her, letting her eyes wander across Clarke’s flesh, from her beautiful smile to the swell of her breasts and lower.

Rather than answer, Clarke reached forward and tugged the shirt upward. Lexa sat back on her heels to let Clarke pull it over her head. As soon as the shirt was free, Clarke hummed and took one of her nipples into her mouth, sucking and twisting and releasing it with a slight pop. “Much better.”

Lexa let the moment build between them, before lowering herself down above Clarke once again. She shifted her hips forward uncertainly but felt the harness tug against her as the strap-on made contact with Clarke’s center. Clarke took in a sharp intake of breath.

“That’s interesting,” Lexa said, dipping her head to kiss along Clarke’s cheek, while grasping the dildo in one hand and sliding it up and down Clarke. She continued her line of kisses to Clarke’s neck, finding a spot that she knew was Clarke’s favorite, as she let one hand wander down to Clarke’s breast. The dildo still in her hand, she pressed the entire length of it against Clarke’s clit, letting it slide against her slit and back again.

When she came back to find Clarke’s mouth, Clarke kissed her eagerly, her tongue moving confidently against Lexa’s, pushing and pulling and taking Lexa’s breath away and replacing it with fire instead.

Lexa kept up her movements, pressing against Clarke and feeling anticipation building in Clarke’s body. “I was doing some reading about this…” she said in between kisses.

“You did research?” Clarke’s hand was slipping down now, covering Lexa’s on the strap-on, and increasing the pressure against her clit and up and down her slit. Lexa could feel it becoming slick in her fingers.

Lexa’s own breath was speeding up. Seeing Clarke like this was always enough to get her excited. “It said that--” She had to pause, as Clarke let out a small moan. She swallowed and tried again. “It said that the best pose for beginners was for you to be on all fours.”

“Doggie style?” Clarke asked, rocking against Lexa with her entire body now. “Let’s do it.”

Lexa lifted off of her, even though the break in contact was the last thing that she wanted. But Clarke sat up and took the bottle of lube from the dresser, squirting some into her hands and rubbing it all along the strap-on. Lexa kneeled in front of her, breathing jagged. Even though she couldn’t feel it herself, having Clarke stroke it like that was still doing things to her. But none of that prepared her for when Clarke twisted around and jutted her ass out toward her. Clarke was very well gifted in that area already, but when she turned her head and looked at Lexa with hooded eyes, Lexa’s pulse was racing.

She took one of Clarke’s cheeks in her hand and couldn’t keep herself from kissing it. Her other hand slid around Clarke’s waist, down her front, and found her clit, already expanding and sensitive. Even just gentle pressure was enough for Clarke to buck up against her. And Lexa hadn’t even begun, not really.

She took the strap-on, which was slick now and slid easily in her grip. She separated Clarke with the other, and the sight of Clarke in front of her, ripe and pink and rocking backwards in preparation, was almost more than she could take. She pushed forward carefully, rubbing the strap-on once again all along the length of Clarke.

Clarke pushed herself back against it and groaned. “You are such a tease sometimes.”

“I can tease you more, if you want…” Lexa said, knowing full well that’s not what Clarke wanted.

“No more teasing. Just fuck me,” Clarke said, blunt as ever.

So Lexa took the strap-on and aligned it with her hole. Clarke was right, it was substantially larger than her fingers, even if she used three or four of them at once. She pushed it forward gently with her hips, using her hand to keep it aligned, and it slid in effortlessly.

But as easy as it seemed, Clarke gasped out and pitched her hips backward. “Oh my God, yes.”

So Lexa tried a little further, and Clarke’s reaction only grew. She took Clarke’s hips and pulled her toward her, Clarke moving with her willingly. Clarke was crying out, and Lexa felt like she hadn’t really done anything yet.

Rather than move Clarke against her, Lexa tried just pushing her hips further toward Clarke’s. The strap-on sunk in even deeper, and watching it move into Clarke like that was more satisfying than Lexa thought it would be. She tried retracting her hips and watched as it slid out of her. She grabbed Clarke’s ass tightly and pushed forward again, and Clarke’s moan was the most delicious thing she had ever heard. She tried it again and again, but eventually, she pulled too far back and the dildo slid out of Clarke.

“Oh. Sorry,” Lexa said, feeling self-conscious. aligning it again with Clarke’s opening.

But Clarke didn’t laugh at her, only seemed even more desperate for her than before. So Lexa just pushed back inside of her, and Clarke moaned out again, even louder. Lexa pushed forward more than she had before, until she could feel the natural limit of how far she could go. She was almost up to the base of the strap-on. So she settled back into the rhythm that she had tried before, pulling back and sliding forward again, and Clarke was moving with her as well.

Holding Clarke’s hips, she tried rocking her hips more with each thrust. She felt Clarke tightening up like a spring, even as Lexa was breathing heavily from her exertion. It wasn’t easy, but watching Clarke pulsing in front of her, being the cause of her moans and cries, was worth every bead of sweat.

When she knew Clarke was getting close, Lexa slowed down her movements again, making them deeper and longer until Clarke was practically writhing against her. But she sped up again, gradually. Clarke whimpered, her name, louder and louder, until she was coming and shaking in Lexa’s grip. Lexa kept a slower pace until Clarke was falling against the sheets of their bed.

The strap-on slid out of her, and Lexa looked down at it, amazed that it and a few thrusts of her hips had made Clarke cry out like that.

But then Clarke was flipping onto her back, resting her forearm on her forehead, gasping for breath,. Lexa laid beside her, turning Clarke’s head toward her to kiss her. Clarke’s enthusiasm soon had Lexa having to break away just to catch her breath.

Clarke’s blue eyes were sharp when she looked over at her, her chest still heaving. “I’ve got to say, this was one of my better ideas.”

“I was that good, huh?” Lexa said, letting herself feel cocky. Because watching Clarke come that hard, and being the cause of it, was one of the best feelings she had ever had.

Clarke laughed and pulled Lexa closer to her by her stomach. “It just means I’m going to make you do it again.”

“Oh no,” Lexa deadpanned before breaking into a huge grin and kissing her again.

**********

As much as Lexa wanted to slow time and make that summer last forever, August came as she knew it would. She suspected that Clarke was also regretting the passage of time. Sometimes, Lexa would catch her just staring out across the grassland, unmoving, for minutes on end. Or Clarke would be joking with her then freeze with an expression that bordered on terrified, before pulling Lexa into a hug that was tight enough to force the air out of her lungs.

(Lexa held her back just as tightly.)

It was with that same tangle of emotion that Clarke planned her going away party. When she began telling Lexa what she wanted, and who she wanted to be there, her eyes would light up in anticipation. But inevitably, at some point Lexa knew that she remembered how this might be the last time she would see many of these people, and she sobered. But Lexa would take her hand and assure her that people would be delighted to send her off, and Clarke’s smile returned for a moment at least.

That’s how Clarke talked to Gustus and planned out the perfect day for the event: a line-dancing night held once a month at the bar, complete with live band and (Clarke winked at her at this point) whiskey specials. Her initial invite list expanded from Anya and Indra, to Sienne and the other diner employees, to the nice guy working at the grocery store, to practically every person that Clarke interacted with in Polis on a semi-regular basis. As far as Lexa could tell, half the town would be attending.

And when she and Clarke stepped into the bar, it certainly seemed that way: the place was packed, even for a weekend. As soon as their feet crossed the threshold, the music went nearly silent, and everyone in the bar turned toward them and cheered. Lexa reached over and squeezed Clarke’s hand, smiling as Clarke’s cheeks turned deep crimson. But Clarke waved at everyone and thanked them for coming. Soon, the music was turned back up and most people returned to their tables.

Clarke shook her head. “I can’t believe how many people there are here!”

“Are you more popular than you thought?” Lexa asked, directing Clarke toward the bar with a hand on her back.

“I can’t… I just appreciate that they would even take the time to be here.”

Lexa leaned in close, breathing Clarke in deep, wrapping an arm around her waist. “That’s because you’re worth it.”

Clarke swallowed hard and stared at her for a long moment, before taking Lexa by the hand and dragging her toward the bar. “I need a drink, otherwise I’m going to start crying, and we’ve only been here ten seconds.”

Lexa let herself be led, and the crowd around the bar parted for them to shoot to the front. Lexa recognized most of them as business and ranch holders in the area, and somehow, they all knew Clarke as well. Although Clarke had been the one to pick up supplies in Polis most of the time, Lexa hadn’t really known how many connections she had made in town in her short time there. It made her proud.

Behind the bar, Gustus leaned on the counter and gave Clarke a big grin. “About time you showed up to your own party.”

“I’m on time,” Clarke said. “Everyone else is just early.”

Gustus barked a laugh. “I’ll give it to you, today only. Now what are you drinking tonight? Everything is on the house for you.”

Clarke’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “You don’t have to do that.”

“Yeah I do. You’ve brought a lot of joy to this town.” Gustus shot a meaningful look at Lexa. “And I’m not about to let you out of here without showing you I’m grateful for that.”

“You already have,” Clarke insisted. “And you’ve kind of let me take over your bar on a Friday night.”

“And look at how much fuller this place is than normal,” Gustus said with a glance around the bar. “You’re drinking for free, Clarke.”

Lexa leaned in toward him. “You do know how much Clarke can drink, right?” She winked at Clarke, who was trying her best to glare at her (and failing miserably).

But Gustus just laughed. “As if I could forget that karaoke night. People were stomping so hard the bar shook.” He took out a short glass from beneath the counter. “I know you’re drinking whiskey, Lexa. But what am I getting you?”

Clarke looked at Lexa with a small smile. “The same.”

Anya came out of nowhere, slapping Clarke on the back. “I was wondering when you would finally show up.”

Unexpectedly, Anya slipped an arm around Clarke’s shoulders and squeezed. Lexa had never known her to be a physically affectionate person, but it seemed that Anya made the exception for Clarke.

Turning back toward the bar, Anya settled her stare onto Gustus. “Another round for Indra and me, Gustus.”

“What would you like?”

But Anya’s gaze ran up and down Gustus’ body. “You know what I like.”

Gustus grinned at her behind his beard, getting another pitcher from beneath the bar and filling it from the tap.

Lexa leaned in toward Anya, Clarke close beside her. “When did that start happening?”

Anya waved nonchalantly to the both of them. “A few weeks, but it’s just casual. I gave him my number after Clarke’s birthday, and I guess it’s escalated from there.”

Clarke nudged her with her shoulder. “Are you saying that I was a matchmaker between you too?”

But Anya just rolled her eyes. “God, Clarke. It’s just sex.”

But Lexa found that hard to believe, when Gustus slid the pitcher of beer over to her across the counter, and Anya let her fingers linger on his as she took it.

After Anya had started making her way away from the bar, Clarke leaned into the counter and glanced back meaningfully to Gustus. “Well, aren’t you two adorable these days.”

Gustus just coughed and ran a hand through his beard. But his eyes returned to watch Anya weaving her way through the busy bar, and Lexa couldn’t help but smile.

After that, their glasses of whiskey in hand, she and Clarke slowly made their way through the bar. Every group of people that they were trying their best to push past would turn toward them, see Clarke, and need several minutes to catch up and tell her how much they would miss her and wish her the best. Every time, Clarke took a healthy sip of her whisky, a wave of sadness passing over her face before it was replaced by her best attempt at a smile.

(But Lexa could see how bittersweet these moments were for her.)

Finally, and after having to circle back to the bar for more whiskey, they made their way to the pool tables in the back. They knew they would find Anya and Indra there.

When even Indra hugged Clarke, Lexa knew that this was a rare event. Indra would shake hands, high five, and clasp shoulders, but she had never seen her hug someone that wasn’t in her immediate family.

Once again, Lexa was amazed that Clarke had made such a deep impression on her friends, and the people of Polis, in such a short amount of time. And again, she felt that pang of regret that Clarke would be leaving all of this behind, when she so obviously could make a life here. But she trusted Clarke, trusted in her instincts and aspirations. She needed to do what was best for herself.

With the four of them, they only managed to get in one game of pool (no surprise, Anya’s team with Clarke won) before the band arrived.

“Good evening, everybody!” the singer announced to a cheer from the bar. “I understand that one of Polis’ adopted sisters is leaving us. Where is she? Clarke?”

Clarke gave an embarrassed wave, as the people in the bar gave another cheer.

“Well, this song is going out to you. Have you ever line danced before?” the singer asked her through the microphone.

Clarke looked at Lexa desperately. “Never,” she yelled back to him across the bar.

The band’s guitarist played a ditty that Lexa interpreted as shocked, as the singer said “Well don’t worry. We’re going to teach you everything you need to know. Aren’t we?” he said louder, to the rest of the bar.

Everyone yelled that they would, even as they began forming lines in the center of the bar, where all of the tables and chairs had been put up against the walls.

“You’re going to make me dance, aren’t you,” Lexa said to Clarke grumpily.

Clarke downed the rest of her drink and grinned at her. “You better believe it.” She took Lexa’s hand and walked purposefully toward the dance floor. “I may not know what I’m doing, but you’re doing it with me.”

Lexa let herself be tugged across the bar and and took a space with Clarke near the back. She hadn’t danced like this since high school and honestly didn’t miss it that much. But when Clarke looked over to her, a big grin on her face, her boot stomping along with the band’s steady beat, Lexa suddenly didn’t want to be anywhere else.

The twang of the guitar began, and Lexa knew the song immediately. Like clockwork, the others in the bar began hitting their heels and toes against the ground, with one foot and then the other.

I was driving through Georgia in late July

On a day hot enough to make the Devil sigh

I saw a homemade sign written in red

Rind County Watermelon Festival Ahead”

But Lexa wasn’t just going to stand there and pretend she didn’t know how this went. Following along with the others, she stepped forward and clapped, and Clarke watched her in amazement.

“Shit, this is going to be harder than I expected,” Clarke said, watching her every move carefully. She tried copying Lexa’s movements, always a beat behind, and Lexa did the grapevine directly into her. Clarke harrumphed, pinching her side. “Not fair. And where have you been hiding these moves for the past year.”

But rather than answer, Lexa just added more swing to her hips, as she twirled in place and faced the other direction with the rest of the group. She began calling out her movements as she was doing them. “Toe, heel, triple step. Toe, heel, triple step. Step, kick and clap. Step, kick and clap.”

And slowly, Clarke was getting it. Lexa could see her relaxing and falling into the rhythm of the song. She laughed when she started moving in the wrong direction and bumped into Lexa again, but Lexa couldn’t be sure if it had been accidental or not. But then Clarke was moving her hips back and forth and spinning in place, and Lexa couldn’t believe she hadn’t thought of taking Clarke out dancing earlier. Because even if she personally felt lukewarm about dancing, she felt quite differently about watching Clarke dance.

Well we got a hundred gallons of sweet red wine

Made from the biggest watermelons on the vine

Help yourself to some but obey the law

If you drink don't drive do the watermelon crawl”

When the song ended, Clarke placed her hands on her hips as she caught her breath. “I think i was actually starting to learn that one. But they’re going to change the dance again, aren’t they?”

“There’s a lot of different line dances, Clarke.”

Stepping into her space, Clarke gave her a crooked smile that she must have known full well what it did to Lexa. “And you know all of them, don’t you?”

Lexa, just barely, resisted the urge to lean over and wipe that smirk off her face with her lips and tongue. People in town may love her and Clarke, but making out with her girlfriend on the dance floor would have been pushing it. “You can’t grow up here and not learn line dancing. It’s tradition.”

“And you were never going to tell me this.”

Lexa shook her head, until the band started playing another song. She moved quickly, taking her hand and placing the other on the small of Clarke’s back, twisting her around in circles as the other people in the bar began another line dance. But they were far enough in the back that they could get away with breaking the rules (or at least, that’s what Lexa chose to believe). And Clarke’s laughter in her ear was more than enough motivation to keep spinning her in circles.

When Lexa slowed to a stop, clinging onto Clarke both because she wanted to and because she was too dizzy and unsteady to stand on her own, Clarke gazed at her with what she could only call love.

“You’re full of surprises, Lexa Woods,” Clarke said to her over the music.

She inched her body closer in Lexa’s arms, pressing against her, and Lexa was suddenly too aware of how Clarke’s button-up shirt clung to her, how it swelled over her chest, how it tucked into her jeans and showed the flare of her hips.

Clarke leaned into her ear. “But I’m going to show you a surprise of my own.”

Before Lexa could even react, Clarke was twisting out of her arms and dragging her by the hand across the bar. They somehow managed to avoid all of the people moving and kicking and clapping in unison, and finally, Lexa realized their destination.

The restroom.

The door had barely closed behind them before Clarke’s lips were on hers, moving fast. Lexa’s eyes shot open, as she tried to scan the bathroom with Clarke doing her best to make her forget her own name. It didn’t look like anyone else was there, but then Clarke was nipping her bottom lip and sliding a leg between Lexa’s, and it was suddenly becoming less important to her that they were doing this in the middle of a public restroom…

But one of the toilets flushed, and Lexa pushed Clarke back into one of the empty stalls. She could feel Clarke grinning against her lips, as she maneuvered them into the stall and latched the door behind them without ever having to break contact.

Clarke pulled back with one long lick across her lips, her hands wandering down to Lexa’s jeans. She pushed Lexa backwards, until Lexa felt her shoulders hit the stall door with a thud. She should have been concerned about whoever was still in the bathroom with them hearing, but she couldn’t spend more than a second of thought on that when Clarke was pinning her with her stare and her fingers were unbuttoning her pants.

Lexa had always known that eventually, Clarke would get her back for what she had done to her during that game night. But she hadn’t expected that it would mean Clarke fucking her in the bar. She knew it was a terrible idea, but Clarke was lowering the zipper on her pants with her eyebrows raised.

When Clarke pressed against her, her breasts smashing against Lexa’s chest, and her breath warm on her ear, Lexa knew she was a goner.

“You have to be quiet,” Clarke whispered in her ear, as her fingers settled onto Lexa over her underwear.

Even at that small touch, Lexa had to suck in a breath. Her fingers pushed aside the fabric of her boy shorts, and the sudden sensation had Lexa bucking up against the door. It rattled in its hinges.

“Careful, Lexa.”

Clarke was kissing and sucking her neck now, and Lexa was vaguely worried about having to walk back out into the bar with a row of hickeys along her neck, until Clarke’s fingers were pulsing against her and making her mind go blank.

Grinning at her evilly, Clarke was watching her every reaction to each movement of her fingers. She added a finger into her, and Lexa couldn’t help the huff of air that she expelled. Clarke raised an eyebrow at her, but Lexa just pulled her in closer by her ass into a kiss. She ran her hand down into Clarke’s pants, pulling out the shirt she had tucked in, gripped her more and more tightly as Clarke’s rhythm inside her increased. She knew she was holding her tight enough to leave a bruise, but she couldn’t care when Clarke’s tongue was swirling against hers, they were panting into each other’s mouths, and Clarke was pushing up into her so forcefully.

Clarke’s fingers were hitting just the right spot, and Lexa heard herself whimper against Clarke, which seemed to only encourage her to hit it over and over again. Lexa’s hips were moving in time, sometimes hitting the door behind her, but she could only focus on grounding herself by grasping onto Clarke, trying to muffle her moans by releasing them into Clarke’s mouth, the sensation of Clarke’s finger inside of her, pushing and curling, and the rocking pressure against her clit, bringing her closer and closer.

It came over Lexa all at once. She wasn’t prepared for it and cried out, slamming her body back into the door. Clarke didn’t let up, as Lexa felt wave after wave course through her. She braced herself against the door, her head falling back against it, eyes shut tight. Finally, she felt herself slumping and Clarke’s fingers sliding out of her and shifting to her waist. She was grateful for how Clarke held her, because her legs were weak beneath herself.

Lexa gulped, her breath slowing down. “That is not what I was expecting from tonight,” she whispered.

“That’s why I said it was a surprise,” Clarke whispered back, a satisfied look in her eye. “And I think you enjoyed it.”

Lexa rolled her eyes, even though she could feel her cheeks coloring, and zipped and buttoned her jeans. “I think we’re now even in having sex with each other in public places.”

“For now,” Clarke said, leaning in close again and staring down at Lexa’s lips with a smile. “Unless you want to push our luck.”

It was oh so tempting, just to cross that small distance between them and let herself forget where they were. But with some modicum of self control (which seemed to be in shorter and shorter supply since Clarke had arrived in her life), Lexa unlatched the door behind her and swung the stall door toward herself, trying to ignore the wistful twist of Clarke’s lips behind her.

Emerging from the stall, Lexa looked up.

And Sienne, the waitress from the diner in town, was staring at her with wide eyes from the entrance of the restroom.

Clarke was right behind her, and though her fingers had migrated to Lexa’s waist again, they slackened their grip as Clarke stood up straight beside her.

“Oh. Sienne,” Clarke said, her voice higher than usual. “I’m really glad you could make it tonight!”

Sienne opened her mouth to respond, but nothing came out.

Clarke let out a nervous laugh. “You’ve been there a while, haven’t you?”

Sienne just pointed toward one of the other stalls. “I think I’m just--”

At the same time that Clarke was pointing toward the door back out to the bar. “We should probably--”

But Lexa tugged her toward the sink and turned on the water. They washed their hands as quickly as they could, as Sienne disappeared into one of the empty stalls.

When they emerged back into the bar, Lexa couldn’t hold it in anymore. Clarke’s burning red cheeks were too much for her not to burst out laughing.

Clarke ran a hand over her face, letting out a sigh, before smacking Lexa’s shoulder with the back of her hand. “Will you quit? It’s not funny.”

Lexa got herself under control but couldn’t stop smiling at her. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you that mortified.”

“You don’t get it.” Clarke led her back to an empty table and leaned in toward her, speaking just loudly enough to be heard over the music. “I can never do anything right around her! She has overhead not one, but two filthy conversations I’ve had with Raven in her diner. She must think I’m sex-crazed.”

“Would she be wrong if she did?” Lexa asked, enjoying how Clarke turned on her.

“OK, you’ve literally tried to fuck me under a table. You don’t have some sort of moral high ground on this.” Clarke’s voice had grown louder. She muttered under her breath, clamping her mouth shut, but her eyes lit up as she looked to Lexa’s neck. “Besides, I’m not the one with a giant hickey on my neck.”

Lexa’s hand rose automatically to her neck, as if she would be able to feel it. Or at least cover it up. “I knew it...”

Clarke pointed to the other side of her neck, her smile growing. “There’s one on that side, too. Sorry not sorry.”

Lexa just held both hands around her neck and sighed. “Maybe we should cut back on public sex for a while.”

“But where’s the fun in that?” Clarke said, smirking at her. “I just need to avoid seeing Sienne again for the rest of my life, and you just need to cover your neck for the next couple of weeks. Although I don’t know how you’re going to line dance with your hands like that.”

Lexa lowered her hands, shooting her a questioning look, but Clarke just burst out laughing.

“Sorry, sorry. But they’re getting darker. I really shouldn’t have done that.”

Lexa popped up the collar of her shirt, hoping that would at least cover some of it. She took Clarke’s hand, pulling her up out of her seat and toward the group of people still dancing in lines. She taught Clarke one dance, and then another, their arms and legs swinging with beat of the songs and twang of the singer’s voice; their hands clapping and their feet stomping in tandem with the other people that Lexa had known all her life, and Clarke had been adopted by in the last year; their eyes searching for each other and finding each other, time and time again.

By the time that the music was winding down, and many people had gone home, they made their way to the exit, and Clarke turned back to take it all in one more time. Lexa stood in the doorway, holding the door open for her, but she didn’t rush her. When Clarke turned toward her again, Lexa could see the tears resting in her eyes. She wrapped an arm around her shoulder and kissed the side of her head, before guiding her slowly back toward the truck.

**********

Clarke never slacked off with her work, even during her final days on the ranch. If anything, she had more initiative than ever, checking the cattle for every foreseeable illness or impairment and double-checking ranch records and projected purchasing schedule for the next several months.

After they had returned from their latest check of the herd, Lexa finished up her grooming of the horses and found Clarke hunched in front of the mini fridge in the corner of the barn, a line of vaccination boosters in front of her. She was so absorbed in what she was doing that she didn’t hear Lexa’s approach.

Lexa kneeled down beside her. “Counting the boosters again?”

“And checking their expiration dates,” Clarke said, before gathering them all and placing them back into the refrigerator. “There’s enough here, and they’re all up-to-date.”

Lexa ran a hand up Clarke’s back, resting it between her shoulder blades. She felt Clarke leaning back into her touch. “We already checked them all last week, Clarke.”

Clarke closed the refrigerator and let out a sigh. “There’s no harm in checking them again. I want to make sure everything goes smoothly after--” She stopped abruptly, looking at the ground.

“Everything’s going to be fine,” Lexa assured her, and not for the first time. “I know when to give the cattle their shots. I’ve figured out where to get hay this fall. We already worked out our grazing schedule this year, so I can keep the cattle closer to the barn during the winter. And we already sent in our weight estimates to the feeding lot.”

But Clarke turned to her with a concerned look before looking away. “I know, but we thought we had taken care of everything last year, too.”

“Clarke.” Lexa waited until Clarke’s eyes returned to her again. “You’re going to have to trust me, that I can handle this.”

“Of course I trust you.” Clarke leaned into Lexa, who wrapped an arm around her shoulder. “But I can’t leave without knowing that I did absolutely everything I could to help.”

“You already have. You’ve done more than enough, for me and the ranch.” When Clarke still didn’t meet her eyes, Lexa reached out her hand and gently turned Clarke’s face towards her. “I love you, Clarke, and it’s only because of you that I really believe that the ranch is going to survive.”

Clarke took Lexa’s hand and held it in both of her own. She rubbed her fingers back and forth across Lexa’s palm. “I know the ranch will survive, but… will we?”

“If that’s what we both want, then yes.” Lexa tightened her grip around Clarke’s fingers. “And I know that’s what I want.”

“That’s what I want, too,” Clarke said, a sad smile coming to her lips. “But that doesn’t mean I’m not afraid.”

“We’re allowed to be afraid. We have a long road ahead of us.”

Clarke stared at her for a long moment before leaning in to kiss her. It was brief and tinged with sadness, and Lexa only held her all the tighter.

Turning under her arm, Clarke looked at her again with moist eyes. “I can’t help but feel like I’m making a mistake. It’s hard to feel like leaving you is the right decision.”

And it was at least as hard for Lexa to make arguments in support of Clarke leaving her. But she knew that, whatever Clarke was feeling at the moment, she was too ambitious to stay at the ranch forever. She forced herself to smile for Clarke’s benefit. “How long have you been dreaming about becoming a doctor?” she asked.

Clarke huffed a sigh, blinking slowly. “Since I was five.”

“And you got accepted to your first choice in schools.”

“I did.”

“And you know that I will wait for you, as long as you need me to. As long as it takes.”

Some of the tears that Clarke had been holding back spilled out of her eyes. She wrapped her arms around Lexa’s waist, and Lexa held her back just as tightly.

“I love you, Lexa,” Clarke said, muffled against her shoulder. “I don’t know what I did to deserve someone like you.”

Swallowing thickly, Lexa rested her head against Clarke’s. “Funny, I ask myself the same thing.”

They stayed like that for a long time, Lexa rocking her gently, as she could hear Clarke sniffling in her arms. But finally, she lifted Clarke to her feet. Still with an arm around her shoulder, she began walking them out of the barn. “How does some tea sound?”

Clarke didn’t say anything, just nodded against her shoulder.

**********

As strong as Lexa was trying to be, Clarke’s last full day on the ranch practically knocked the wind out of her. Although it was a bright day, warm without being hot, the breeze gentle, it almost seemed too perfect. It was like even the ranch was begging her to stay.

She remembered back to that day in the pastures, over a year ago now, when Clarke had told her about why she had come to the ranch. She had been escaping people who had disappointed her and embarked on her own path. Lexa marveled again at how much bravery it must have taken for Clarke to leave behind her friends and family to live with a complete stranger on a ranch. And once again, she couldn’t believe how quickly Clarke had taken to life here, how it fit her like a glove. Clarke had learned so much, accomplished more than Lexa had ever imagined, and, to her immense credit, stayed on the ranch when Lexa had needed her most.

But she wasn’t the only one to learn and grow in the last year. Even as Lexa had been falling in love with Clarke, it was like she was falling in love with the ranch again as well. Seeing it through new eyes had made her realize how unique her life was,and how much she would sacrifice to make sure that it succeeded.

But the ranch was so much more than just land and cattle. It was tranquility, grass bent in rolling waves by the whispered words of the breeze. It was the celebration of new life, a cow turning around with tired eyes and greeting her calf for the first time. It was discovery and joy, a child laughing as he was hoisted onto a horse and led around the yard. It was the satisfaction of a job well done, the clinking of ice in a glass of whiskey on a chilly autumn evening. And it was that feeling of coming home, even when Lexa had never left the ranch at all, waking each morning with Clarke tucked into her side and holding her close.

But now, Lexa had to let go. She could do it, she knew, only because she loved Clarke too much to hold her back from her future. One she desperately wanted to be part of.

Their days together counted down, but they completed their tasks as they always had. They rode out into the grassland, their legs brushing up against one another’s. Clarke swayed in the saddle as confidently as ever, her red flannel bright against the browning grass, her hair putting the sun to shame, her eyes as blue as the sky but tinged with something that Lexa couldn’t let herself think about, not now.

Clarke was especially diligent in her check-up of the cattle. She went from one to the next, giving each of them a pat along the neck as she moved on. The last one she checked was Daenerys.

Lexa watched her perform the same check-up that she had done for the others, but then Clarke just stood there, motionless, silent. Lexa crossed to her side but said nothing. There was nothing to say.

After a long minute, Clarke moved forward and hugged Dany’s neck from the side. When Clarke released her, Daenerys turned toward her and placed her head squarely into Clarke’s chest and mooed.

Clarke backed away and turned toward Lexa. She looked at her very seriously. “Please keep her safe,” she said barely above a whisper.


“You have my word,” Lexa said. She knew it was foolish to say something like that, when anything could happen, but she couldn’t deny Clarke the comfort of knowing she would do everything in her power. “I won’t let anything happen to her.”

Clarke nodded, wiping her nose on the back of her hand. “And you have to send me pictures of her calf as soon as he’s born.”

“Consider it done.”

Clarke managed one last attempt of a smile back at Daenerys, who was watching her with soft brown eyes. “You be good now,” Clarke said with forced lightness. “Don’t let Lexa wander off by herself and get caught in the snow again.”

Daenerys kept staring at her, her jaw working in circles as she chewed the cud, which Lexa supposed was agreement enough.

As she turned back toward her, Clarke’s smile slipped. She trudged to her horse and held onto the saddle for a long moment.

Slipping up beside her, Lexa placed a hand on her shoulder. “Are you ready?”

“No,” Clarke said without facing her.

But soon, Clarke put her foot in the stirrup and pushed herself into the saddle. Lexa followed suit, and they both looked over the herd in a silence that was full of Clarke’s reluctance to go. Finally, they turned their backs to the cattle and slowly made their way back toward the ranch.

**********

Lexa awoke the next morning with Clarke’s arm wrapped around her stomach, holding her tight against her. For a few precious seconds, she only knew that she was warm in bed, Clarke’s legs tucked up behind her own, her lover’s breath warm against her neck, pieces of her hair scattered across her back. She only knew that she felt safe, and loved, and whole.

And then she remembered.

She backed herself more firmly into Clarke and relished how Clarke’s arm tightened around her. Clarke’s sigh told her that she was awake… she wondered how long she had been lying there, holding her, waiting for Lexa to wake up.

Waiting for Lexa to wake up, on their last morning together.

Lexa had managed to be so strong up to that point. She had told herself that’s what Clarke needed. Seeing Lexa break down into ugly tears wouldn’t help her make the right decision for herself and leave. It would only make everything more difficult.

But her control was breaking, and Lexa felt the tears already running channels down her cheeks. But she couldn’t help it, not now, even when she was trying to be the strength that Clarke needed.

As much as she wished that she could lie there forever, Lexa flipped onto her back. Clarke was still on her side facing her, still naked from the night before, and despite her eyes being red and swollen, Lexa couldn’t help but feel beyond grateful that she got to wake up that morning and see them.

Lexa wiped away one of the tears that had freshly fallen from Clarke’s eyes. “You’re so beautiful in the morning,” she said, almost reverently.

Clarke gifted her with a short laugh, even if sounded suspiciously like a sob. “Please. I’ve been crying for hours. And I’m not the only one.” She reached forward and wiped Lexa’s cheek clean as well. She laughed again, a little more convincingly. “Don’t we know that it’s too early to cry?”

Lexa wrapped an arm around her, as Clarke moved to snuggle into her shoulder. She traced her fingers up and down Clarke’s arm, trying harder than ever to remember the feel of them, the rise and fall of muscles that Clarke had gained during her time on the ranch, the curve of her shoulder and the sweep of her back. She felt Clarke’s lips brush against her collarbone.

“I never imagined it would be this hard to leave you,” Clarke whispered against her, kissing her skin again.

“And I’ve never wanted someone to stay so badly,” Lexa said. She knew it would only make Clarke’s choice harder, but she couldn’t help herself.

“You do understand though, don’t you?” Clarke asked, with so much uncertainty in her voice that Lexa was immediately, fully awake.

“Of course I do.” She moved to her side, so that they were just inches from each other, looking into each other’s eyes on the bed. She ran her fingers down Clarke’s cheek and cupped it in her hand. “You need to do this, Clarke. I would never stand in the way of something that was this important to you. But I do need you to remember something.”

Clarke watched her as if she could start crying again at any moment.

So Lexa took both of her hands in her own. She stared intently into her eyes. She channeled every bit of her love for Clarke into her voice. “I need you to remember that my love for you is stronger than you could ever know, deeper than I could ever express. And that, no matter how long it takes, I’m not going anywhere.”

But then Clarke was crying again, and Lexa hadn’t realized that she had started again too. Clarke’s lips moved swiftly to hers, desperate and tinged with tears, and Lexa tried her best to kiss them clean, as if she could take away Clarke’s sadness if she only kissed her hard enough and thoroughly enough.

She tried not to think about how this could be the last time, as Clarke shifted on top of her, pressing down against her core. She knew that she may have been clinging onto Clarke too tightly, that her nails may have scratched along her back, but she couldn’t find it in herself to relax her grip. She was grateful that Clarke kept on kissing her, that she didn’t relent for a single moment, so that Lexa couldn’t fixate on worrying about how she could possibly live her life without Clarke there beside her.


But soon, they were both collapsing into the bed again, and their tears were flowing just as much as they had been before, and Lexa thought it had only brought her closer to the fact that this was actually ending. As grateful as she would be to hear Clarke’s voice on the phone or see her on a screen, how could any of that compare to Clarke gasping for air beside her, sweat running down her chest, fingers grasping at her even though they had been holding each other nonstop since last night?

Lexa couldn’t stop running her hand through Clarke’s hair. But eventually, Clarke’s hand rested on top of hers, bringing it to a pause.

Clarke took a deep breath and released it. “I need to go,” she murmured.

And despite Lexa knowing that she was right, her fingers didn’t seem to understand. They tightened around Clarke’s hand. But Lexa nodded, and it took everything in her to sit up. Clarke followed, still letting Lexa hold her hand.

“I just need to get dressed,” Clarke announced, as if she needed to, as if Lexa thought she would be driving naked. “My stuff’s already in the car…”

“I know, Clarke. I helped you pack it yesterday.”

“Right, I just…” Clarke let out another breath. “Fuck, I hate this.”

Lexa squeezed her hand and forced herself to release it. She hated it too, but saying it out loud would only make it worse. “Any breakfast for you this morning?”

For the first time that morning, Clarke gave her a genuine smile. It only made Lexa’s heart ache more. “Why? Are you going to cook me something?”

Lexa tried her best to smile back. “If you like burnt toast and runny eggs.”

The affection in Clarke’s eyes was almost more than Lexa could handle. But Clarke eventually looked away. Even like that, brow furrowed and staring off at nothing, she was so beautiful. “I wish I could, Lexa. But I think I should just go.”

Lexa leaned forward and kissed the top of her head. “I understand.”

As Clarke got dressed, Lexa threw on jeans and a light flannel of her own before heading to the kitchen and getting some coffee started. Even if Clarke didn’t want to stay for breakfast, she wasn’t going to let her leave the cabin without at least something in her stomach. She heard Clarke brushing her teeth, but Lexa had a hard time moving from where she was leaning against the counter. It seemed like nothing she could do in those moments would be enough. What did you do when the love of your life was leaving you, maybe forever?

Clarke came out of the bathroom in her work jeans and shirt, the ones that Lexa had bought her. She stared at her and swallowed thickly. Lexa wished she knew what to say.

The coffee maker beeped behind her, making Lexa jump. But she used it as an excuse to grab a mug from the cupboard and pour a cup of coffee. She added some milk and sugar, even as she could feel Clarke watching her every move. When she crossed the room and handed it to her, Clarke’s eyes were wet again.

Lexa smiled at her and curled Clarke’s hand around the mug. “It’s just coffee, Clarke.”

But Clarke frowned down at it. “But… what about the mug? I won’t be able to give it back to you.”

“I think you will. Someday.”

Clarke looked up to her then, eyes shining more brightly than Lexa had ever seen them. She placed the mug onto the table carefully before wrapping her arms around Lexa’s shoulders. She stood there, for a long moment, just looking at her and making Lexa feel like she had everything she could ever want in the world, if only for a few more minutes.

Clarke’s lips met hers, and her arms tightened around her. Lexa held Clarke’s waist and pulled her in, and it was good. It was everything. Lexa never wanted to stop, even though their kiss seemed to give her life and take it away.

When they parted, Lexa could only rest her forehead against Clarke’s. She closed her eyes, breathed her in, memorized the feeling of her waist in her hands, the sound of her breathing, the energy that was Clarke’s and Clarke’s alone.

But then Clarke was pulling away, wiping her eyes and her nose and looking miserable. Why was Lexa doing this to her? Why was she making her delay? She was only making it worse.

Lexa took the mug of coffee and put her hand on the small of Clarke’s back. “Let me walk you to your car.”

Clarke just nodded to her silently, and they slowly made their way out the door, down the steps of the porch, across the dirt driveway. It was still early enough for the birds to be chirping, and the wind held the promise of a warm day. It would have been a perfect morning to be saddling the horses and riding across the ranch, but instead, they were making a choice that both had agreed on but neither was completely happy with.

Lexa placed the mug onto the roof of Clarke’s car and took Clarke into her arms again, squeezing tight. Clarke hugged her back just as ferociously, taking deep breath after deep breath. But they couldn’t stand there forever. Lexa placed a kiss on Clarke’s cheek as she pushed away, but Clarke pulled her back in for another kiss, short and quivering.

“Call me when you get there?” Lexa said, amazed at how steady her voice was when she was literally falling apart.

“Of course.” Clarke tried to smile at her. “I should go, though. I need to go. I love you, Lexa.”

“I love you too, Clarke.”

“I should…”

“You should.”

Clarke still lingered for a long moment, staring a hole into Lexa’s heart. But then she turned toward her car, opened the door, sat down. Lexa handed her the mug, and she placed it in the cup holder (would it spill? Why hadn’t Lexa thought of that?). The cowboy hat, the one that had been Lexa’s mom’s, was resting on the passenger’s seat. Lexa had made her take it, because she couldn’t handle what it meant if she didn’t.

Clarke started the car and rolled the window down….and the song that played on the radio nearly broke her.

Cause you’re the one I want, you’re the one I need

Baby, if I was a king, you would be my queen

Clarke laughed, a little bitterly, in the front seat, giving Lexa a significant look. “Of course it would be this song.”

But Lexa could only shake her head. That night when Clarke had sung this song… sung it to her, it had seemed, that had started everything between them. So why wouldn’t it be the way they would say goodbye?

You’re the rock in my roll

You’re good for my soul, it’s true

I’m head over boots for you.

Clarke breathed in deeply and let it all out in a huff. “Goodbye, Lexa.”

Lexa swallowed past the lump in her throat. “Goodbye, Clarke.”

She forced herself to step back from the car, but she couldn’t take her eyes off of Clarke. They watched each other for a long moment, but finally, as if against her will, Clarke put the car into gear and turned her gaze forward.

I wanna sweep you off your feet tonight

I wanna love you and hold you tight

Spin you round on some old dance floor…

The twang of the guitars faded, as Lexa stood there and watched Clarke embark on the long road ahead of them.

Chapter Text

Even though Clarke had grown up in a city, she found that city life didn’t agree with her as much as it used to. There was traffic no matter the time of day. Honking cars and rushing busses replaced the sound of chirping insects and gusting wind. Everyone passed each other in the street and in the store without even a friendly nod.

It took all of two seconds for Clarke to miss Polis, with its main street and small shops where everybody seemed to know everybody else. Despite not even wanting to meet new people or make friends, Clarke had been won over by the locals’ easy smiles and curiosity about what had brought her all the way out there.

As autumn came over Fort Collins, Clarke reminisced about how fresh the air on the ranch had been, how it had filled her lungs with a marvelous crispness as the few trees on the ranch dropped their leaves. She remembered the awe she felt when she could turn in every direction and see only hills of grass and a never-ending, open sky. She couldn’t smell sage anymore without being transported back to the ranch, how the entire world seemed to come alive with it when the sagebrush bounced back after the long winter. Even the smell of fertilizer reminded Clarke of the ranch, as if she hadn’t already seen and smelled enough cow manure to last her a lifetime.

Clarke was trying her best to settle back into a normal life. She threw herself into her classes and part time research job but was still surprised at how much she had forgotten in just a year away from school. Luckily, it meant that she only had to work harder and study longer than her classmates, which helped keep her mind off of--

Lexa.

Even just thinking about her sent a twinge of longing through Clarke. No matter how hard she studied, Clarke’s mind was never that far from Lexa. It didn’t matter that she could be reading about ruminant digestion or pulmonary ventilation, Clarke would be struck with random thoughts about her. Memories of them riding out to the cattle. Daydreams about how Lexa would come up behind her while Clarke was cooking and wrap her arms around her middle, resting her chin on Clarke’s shoulder. Longing for Lexa’s lips, her tongue, her touch, that would come over her at the most inconvenient times.

It didn’t help that they were both insanely busy. Lexa was somehow managing the entire ranch on her own, and Clarke had to rush to class and work and wasn’t free until late at night. She wished that Lexa had a cell phone so she could just text her whenever she had a free moment. It would make things so much easier, having that constant line of communication, so that every time Clarke thought of her, she could let her know. Clarke had taken to sending Lexa short emails instead, and while it worked for Clarke to let Lexa know she was thinking about her, there was no way for Lexa to reciprocate. She had no cell service at all, and no internet until she finally returned to the cabin after a long day’s work. Clarke didn’t want to complain, since there was no way for Lexa to be able to communicate with her more often throughout the day, but it was hard for Clarke not to hear from her at all until evening.

But they were making it work as best they could. They emailed every day, called if they each had an extra few minutes, and Sundays were their day to really catch up. And as promised, Lexa had managed to install a webcam onto her computer, even if it had taken her a solid twenty minutes to get the microphone to work. Clarke could only laugh as she watched a silent Lexa becoming more and more frustrated at her computer. After that, they tried to Skype once a week, but it only made Clarke feel more dissatisfied. Being able to see Lexa and hear her voice but not being able to touch her was torture.

But just because Clarke couldn’t touch her didn’t mean that they couldn’t work something else out. Once Lexa got her webcam working, Clarke knew that it was only a matter of time before she proceeded to the next logical step.

It was a Friday. Clarke was going out with some other students later for a couple of drinks to ease the sting of their last exam, and Lexa, not surprisingly, had another early morning the next day. Sitting on her bed with her laptop settled in front of her, Clarke decided to proceed with her plan when Lexa had been talking about the ranch for quite some time.

“It’s supposed to snow next week,” Lexa said with some frustration, “so I’m trying to have the buyer take the calves before then. But he’s dragging his feet, and--” She stopped abruptly.

Clarke took no small amount of pleasure at the fact that unbuttoning just one button of her shirt made Lexa’s words come to a screeching halt. She watched Lexa’s jaw drop, as she slowly dragged her fingers down to the next button and undid it as well.

Lexa’s stare was suddenly glued to Clarke’s chest, even as she stuttered onward. “He, um… he said…”

Clarke had now undone enough buttons for her bra to be peeking through her shirt. She cocked her head to the side, amused. “Is something wrong, Lexa?”

Lexa closed her gaping mouth and cleared her throat. “Why are you…”

“Why am I what?” Clarke asked nonchalantly, as she pulled her shirt open even more, exposing the top of her breasts (which she knew, in that bra, were pretty legendary).

Lexa let out a breath and wasn’t even trying to mask the fact that she was ogling Clarke’s chest. “This is why you wanted me to get a webcam, isn’t it,” she said hoarsely.

“Pretty much.” Clarke ran her hands over her bra and pushed her boobs upward, watching Lexa’s eyes shoot wide. “But this is a two-player game. I don’t want to be the only one showing off.”

Lexa stared hard for another moment before pulling her shirt over her head without another word, and Clarke now knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that getting webcams was a good decision.

Clarke let her eyes roam over the skin not obscured by Lexa’s sports bra. It had been so long since she had seen Lexa like this (well, only a month, but it felt like much longer), that Clarke couldn’t settle on any one feature. The expanse of her chest, the muscles latent under her skin (Clarke told the anatomy student side of her brain not to name them), the dip of her throat, they all demanded her attention (and her touch, but that would have to wait). When Lexa undid her braid and draped the crimped hair over her shoulder, Clarke wished she could run her fingers through it. She knew its softness, knew the scent of Lexa’s shampoo, knew how Lexa’s eyes would flutter shut when Clarke ran her fingers against Lexa’s scalp.

Clarke forced her eyes up to Lexa’s only for a moment and found Lexa staring hard at her. Clarke undid another button and watched in satisfaction as Lexa’s gaze flickered down to her chest. “Have you done this before?” Clarke asked.

Lexa just shook her head, which Clarke found cute. Lexa often lost the ability to speak when Clarke started taking her clothes off.

“Me either,” Clarke confessed as she leaned forward. She smiled as Lexa returned to ogling her chest and stomach. “But I thought we could figure this out together?”

“Yeah. Yes.” Lexa let out a deep breath. “We can do that.”

“Why don’t you angle your camera down a bit?” Clarke asked with a suggestive raising of her eyebrow. “Let me see more of you.”

“Just a second…” Lexa leaned forward, so that Clarke suddenly got a very decent view of her boobs up close. There was static, and the picture jostled and blurred. The video went out for a second with a crash.

“Shit.” Lexa picked up the camera from where it had fallen and looked into it from two inches away.

The close-up of Lexa’s nostrils was too much, and Clarke burst out laughing. “Having some trouble there?”

Lexa just mumbled something about hating technology under her breath, as she reattached the webcam to her monitor and carefully angled it downward, biting her tongue in concentration. “And there… we go.” She scooted her chair backward, so that Clarke was able to see her entire body sitting there, and…

Wow.

Even just sitting in the chair like that, back ramrod straight, with her hair pulled over her shoulder and her stomach bare, Lexa was magnificent. Clarke let out a shaky breath. “Is it bad that just the sight of you in your bra is doing things to me?”

Lexa’s lips curled to the side in a smile. “So what are you going to be like when I take off more of my clothes?”

Clarke’s eyebrow raised in surprise. Lexa was more receptive to video sex than she thought she would be. She thought she might have to coax Lexa into this, but that didn’t seem necessary anymore. And it was hot. “I think you’re talking a big game.”

Lexa settled back into her chair, giving Clarke a challenging look. Her fingers wandered to the top of her pants, moved to the button, then stopped. She looked up to Clarke under her eyelashes. “I think you need to show me something in exchange.”

Honestly, Clarke was loving this side of her. Who knew all it took was putting Lexa in front of a camera to bring out her demanding side. “Fair enough.” She undid the last two buttons of her blouse and let it fall open to either side. Lexa’s hungry eyes roaming across her were beyond satisfying and caused desire to pool between her legs.

Clarke slowly shrugged off her blouse to put her boobs on full display. Earlier that evening, she had changed into a black bra that, while not technically a push-up, showed an impressive amount of cleavage. Looking down at herself, she passed a hand over one of her breasts over her bra. She glanced back to the camera to see Lexa’s chest rising and falling more quickly than before, her eyes hooded.

“Now it’s your turn,” Clarke said.

Lexa didn’t look away from Clarke the entire time she undid the button on her pants and lowered the zipper. She lifted her hips off of the chair so that she could push them down her body. She took them completely off before settling back into the chair and spreading her legs wide enough to pull Clarke’s gaze.

Clarke couldn’t look away. Lexa’s gray underwear was already marked by a dark spot. She licked her lips eagerly. “You’re already wet, Lexa.”

But that only made Lexa spread her legs wider, as she ran her hands down her own thighs. “I have been for a while. Since you started unbuttoning your shirt.”

That confession had Clarke squirming on her bed. She positioned her laptop further down the bed between her legs and ran a hand over herself over her shorts. It wasn’t the kind of pressure that her body was craving (she knew it really wanted Lexa, but this was the next best thing). She had her fingers return between her legs, rubbing harder against herself, watching Lexa’s reaction all the while.

Lexa forced out a breath. “You should take those off.”

“These?” Clarke teased, running a finger into the leg of her shorts and tugging on them, before pushing that finger back up against herself and moaning slightly.

“Yes, Clarke.” Lexa’s voice was higher pitched than normal, and her hands were moving to her inner thighs and up her legs. Clarke waited for Lexa to pull them all the way up, to touch herself, but Lexa stopped short. “Take them off,” she said, more assertively.

And how could Clarke say no to that? She unclasped them, but instead of pulling them down, she just passed her hand underneath them and pushed past her underwear. They were soaked. She rubbed her fingers against her clit, her body pushing up against her own fingers.

“Off, Clarke.” Lexa was nearly panting now. “The underwear too.”

“You first,” Clarke said, as she continued to focus on her clit, pushing and circling. Lexa’s look of frustration was enough to make her throb.

But Lexa couldn’t hold out. She tore her sports bra over her head, and even through the webcam, Clarke could tell how hard her nipples were. It shot another wave of heat through her. But Lexa looked hungrily at Clarke’s own bra, and it didn’t take long for Clarke to know what she was waiting for. Clarke reached a hand behind herself and unclasped it. She let out a sigh as she had to stop touching herself to slide it off of her arms, but Lexa’s widening eyes as she took in the sight of her boobs made it more than worthwhile.

And now, Clarke was quickly wanting to leave her teasing act behind, because Lexa was sliding off her underwear to reveal herself, pink lips obscured by dark trimmed hairs. Clarke didn’t waste anymore time in pushing her own shorts and underwear down her body and kicking them off of the bed. She spread her legs wider, knowing the view Lexa would get.

Finally, Lexa’s hand completed the journey, as her fingers ran up and down herself. She practically bucked in her chair.

But Clarke just ran her hand down and spread her own lips wider, watching how Lexa let out a moan and pressed harder against herself. “I wish that were my own hand,” Clarke said, her voice huskier than she had expected. But the way that Lexa gulped made her think it was more than welcome. “Or my mouth. God, I just want to touch you.”

Lexa’s moan was more than indication enough that Clarke was getting to her. “I want that too, Clarke.”

“Here’s what we’re going to do.” Clarke couldn’t resist any longer. She ran a finger along her lips and plunged it inside of herself. It slid in easily, but still sent a rattle of pleasure through her. “‘I’m going to pretend that these are your fingers pushing inside of me.” She inserted another finger, pushing them further into herself. A moan racked through her, as she watched Lexa doing the same. “And you’re going to pretend that that’s me. And I’m not going to be gentle, Lexa. I’m going to fuck you, until you’re crying out my name. Can you do the same for me?”

Lexa’s fingers were moving faster now, moving in and out of herself. “Yes, Clarke. But I want you to rub your clit with your other hand. I would be sucking it right now.” Her voice was coming more breathlessly, and punctuated by the sound of her fingers sliding in her own wetness.

Clarke did as she was told and started to rub circles around her own clit. She imagined that her fingers were Lexa’s mouth, how Lexa liked to suck against her, the patterns she liked to use with her tongue, sliding up and down and around Clarke’ clit. If she focused hard enough on Lexa, on the shuddering of her body and her dark eyes, Clarke could almost feel Lexa’s breath against herself.

“Harder,” Clarke insisted, as she watched Lexa’s fingers sliding into herself. “I’m thrusting hard into you, more quickly now. I pause a little every time I’m deep inside of you and twist my fingers.”

Lexa eyes snapped shut as she followed the directions. “Fuck, Clarke, I wish this was really you doing this.”

“I’m kissing your neck now,” Clarke continued, as Lexa tilted her head to the side. She could almost feel her lips tracing against Lexa’s smooth skin there. She had to increase the pace of her own fingers inside of herself. “I’m kissing and licking down your skin, all the way to your chest.”

On cue, Lexa’s hand pressed against her breast, her fingers curling around it. “And what else do you want, Clarke? I want to curl my fingers inside of you, move faster until you come.”

Just hearing Lexa say that was enough for Clarke to let out a dirty moan. Lexa’s own pace quickened as well, and she threw her head back and hit the back of the chair with a thud. But if it hurt, Lexa didn’t make any indication of it. Lexa looked back to the camera, her mouth going wide as she squeezed her eyes shut, and Clarke felt her orgasm rising inside of herself.

“I’m going to come, Clarke,” Lexa panted at her, opening her eyes again and piercing Clarke with her stare.

Clarke could see it approaching, watched as Lexa’s body rolled around her fingers and stiffened. She curled forward in her chair as it wracked through her, crying out Clarke’s name.

And seeing Lexa shaking with pleasure was all it took. Clarke’s orgasm hit her like a train, but she kept her eyes on Lexa, watched her body convulsing and hearing the sound of her name on Lexa’s tongue, and Clarke clenched down on her fingers, drawing them in, rippling around them. She let out a long moan of her own, fueled by Lexa crying out again as she slumped back in her chair. Clarke kept curling her fingers and rubbing herself until her spasms faded away. After that, she was spent and very glad that she was already sitting against her pillows.

Clarke tried to catch her breath as she took her fingers out of herself. Lexa watched her silently, her eyes widening when Clarke brought her fingers to her mouth and licked them clean one by one. Lexa swallowed, lifting her own fingers to her mouth and sucking them, which only awakened another wave of arousal in Clarke.

“That was…” Clarke closed her legs and sat up in bed. “Really hot, actually.”

Lexa just nodded, sitting up straighter in her chair as well. “I get why you wanted webcams now. That was definitely worth $9.99”

“Is that how much my body is worth to you, Lexa?” Clarke said while trying (unsuccessfully) to keep a straight face.

Lexa rolled her eyes a little. “You know what I mean.”

Clarke couldn’t help laughing at her, even if all of this just made her want to kiss Lexa even more. She hated that she couldn’t. “I love you, Lexa. I wish we weren’t 800 miles away from each other.”

“I love you too.” Lexa looked down at her lap sheepishly (which was strange, considering that they had just masturbated to each other on camera). “I really miss you, Clarke. I miss waking up with you, and how you trace your fingers along my back. I miss being able to hug you and breathe you in.”

Clarke’s heart turned to a puddle in an instant. “I miss all of that too,” she said. “And how big your eyes get when I make you food. And how you snuggle into my chest when we’re watching a movie.” She cocked her head to the side with a smirk. “And the sex, let’s not forget about that.”

Lexa’s cheeks reddened slightly. “I haven’t, don’t worry.”

Clarke laughed again but looked into the camera with a more serious look. She and Lexa had already talked about this, but it seemed like now, when they were both so obviously missing each other and longing for one another, it was even more important. “Are we still doing OK, Lexa? With the long distance and everything?”

Lexa turned her webcam back up (to Clarke’s disappointment), and sat closer to her computer. She frowned, staring somewhere beyond the camera. “I knew before we started that it was going to be hard. But it’s actually harder than I thought.”

“That’s an understatement,” Clarke said with a wry twist of her lips. She didn’t know before they started dating long-distance that it was possible to physically ache for someone.

But Lexa ignored that comment, looking almost desperately back into the camera again. “I just miss you, Clarke. So much. More than I even thought I would, and I knew I would miss you every hour of every day. But…” Lexa bit her lip, suddenly unsure. “I love talking to you, Clarke, and knowing what’s happening in your life. But sometimes when we do, I actually feel… worse.”

“Worse?” Clarke repeated, as she tried to quell the dread pooling in her stomach.

“Not because of you,” Lexa said quickly, her frown intensifying. “But because only hearing your voice, without being able to touch you or hold you, leaves me with a hole I can’t fill. I want to be a part of your life, but all I can be right now is a voice on the phone or a few lines in an email. I know we are so much more to each other than this. Calling you never feels like enough.”

Lexa ran out of steam, sighing and closing her eyes. “If that makes any sense.”

Clarke hated that her choice to attend school made Lexa hurt like that. She hated being the source of any of Lexa’s pain. She shifted the laptop to the top of her legs, so that Lexa would be able to see her eyes, see how much she meant all of this.

“That makes complete sense,” Clarke said. “In a perfect world, I would still be there with you, and we would be a very real, tangible part of each other’s lives. Those would have been my hands on you tonight, and I would get to hold you until we both fall asleep.” Just the thought of it made Clarke ache. “I’m not satisfied with just calling you either, but I don’t think we’re meant to be satisfied with it. If we are, then what would that mean for us? Would we really belong together?”

Lexa looked at her with sad, green eyes. Clarke wished that she could comfort her better, but when she was 800 miles away, all she had was words.

“But I think we are meant to be together,” Clarke continued, never needing Lexa to believe her more in her life. “And I know that, as hard as this is right now, that you’re worth it. And we only really need to worry if we start thinking that we’re not worth it.”

“You’re worth it, Clarke.” Lexa’s eyes were shining now. “You’re worth this, and much more. I never want you to feel like you’re not.”

Clarke swallowed thickly, wishing she could see into the future just this once and know that she and Lexa would be together. She wanted that reassurance, wanted to know that, after these years of them being apart, that they would reunite stronger than ever. She didn’t want to put Lexa through this, make her feel like all the ways they try to communicate and stay in touch with each other were insufficient. After all, it had been Clarke’s decision to leave the ranch and go back to school. She couldn’t help but blame herself for all of this.

Clarke cleared her throat, trying to control these thoughts. “Is there anything we can do, or I can do, to make things better?”

Lexa smiled at her then, a calming smile, one that Clarke could look at for hours and never tire of. “You already asked me to get the webcam, Clarke. And it’s nice, you’re right. It helps to be able to see you. And… tonight was…” Her cheeks burned red again. “It was really good. I think being able to see you will make things easier. And I meant to show this to you earlier...”

Clarke watched as Lexa reached past the computer to get something. She came back into the frame holding… a cell phone.

Clarke frowned a little. “A phone? You don’t even get service at the ranch.”

“No,” Lexa admitted, turning the phone in her hand. “But it can go online, and I walked around outside, and my wifi signal goes pretty far. I can still go online out in the barn. And I got pay as you go, so I can get service in Polis.”

“That’s really great, Lexa.” Clarke felt herself smiling. She still wouldn’t be able to get in touch with Lexa all the time, but considering the amount of time that Lexa spent around the barn and in Polis, it was going to make a difference. “I’ll be able to text you now, if you get WhatsApp. Oh, and you should get Snapchat, too! ”

“OK…” Lexa drawled, looking down at the phone screen. “I don’t really know what those are.”

“One is for messaging, and the other is for pictures,” Clarke said with a suggestive raising of her eyebrow. “And oh my God, you can finally join the modern age and get Facebook!”

Lexa’s face scrunched up. “I guess.”

“You’re right, one thing at a time,” Clarke admitted. She smiled into the camera, leaning forward so that Lexa got another generous shot of her boobs. “I can’t wait to send you nudes.”

A stupid grin came across Lexa’s face as she stuttered and failed to make anything intelligible come out of her mouth. All of the tension in Clarke’s body left in an instant, and Clarke laughed until her sides hurt.

*********

The holidays came and went, with Clarke needing to keep experiments running over the break for her research job. Lexa spent it with Anya’s and Indra’s families, as always. It was lonely for Clarke, and Lexa of course told her she wished that Clarke could be there with her, but they managed as best they could.

And then one day, out of the blue, Lexa said she might be able to come visit.

In true Lexa fashion, she had broken the news casually, in a text, as if Clarke’s heart hadn’t immediately stopped beating at the mere idea of it. She had been in class and could only send back about a dozen exclamation marks in a row, followed by another long series of question marks and heart eye emojis until Lexa finally took the hint and explained what she meant.

She was buying cattle from a ranch in eastern Wyoming (she didn’t say exactly where) and thought that she could stay a night with Clarke before making the purchase. Clarke enthusiastically agreed.

She would finally get to see her girlfriend again. Her girlfriend, who was living 800 miles away. Her super hot girlfriend, who could make Clarke’s knees weak with just a glance. Her sappy, sometimes obnoxiously smug girlfriend. Clarke was ready.

Of course, Clarke’s academic schedule did not at all agree with Lexa’s visit. She had a paper due the next day, and an exam at the end of the week. She worked her ass off and finished the paper beforehand and resigned herself to the fact that she was going to have one day less to study for the exam. But she had already hit the material hard, and honestly another day probably wouldn’t have done her much good anyway. These courses were like a firehose, and she, like the rest of her classmates, were just struggling to keep up.

But Clarke got to forget about all of that for one day. Just one. It wouldn’t be enough, but it was something.

Clarke had her textbook open in front of her and was trying her best to use these last few minutes to study, even if nothing was going into her head, when her phone vibrated on the table. She picked it up excitedly.

I’m here.

Clarke burst out of her seat, grabbing her jacket from the back of the chair and the keys from the counter and let the apartment’s door slam behind her as she awkwardly tried to put her jacket on while running down the hallway.

The air outside was cold on her cheeks--it was January, after all--but she was walking fast enough that she couldn’t feel it. She told herself she should probably be more careful on the slick sidewalk, snow piled up on either side of it, but that was all a secondary concern. She had told Lexa to park a couple of blocks away, because there was no way that a truck with a cattle trailer could find room anywhere near her apartment building.

She turned the corner down the street… and there she was, looking the other direction, standing with her hands in the pockets of her Carhartt jacket, a flannel shirt poking out just a little from the bottom. Her hair spilled from the bottom of a black beanie on her head, as she stretched her legs out after a long day of driving.

Clarke sped up her pace. Lexa turned, probably having heard the ice crunching under Clarke’s boots. The uncertain look on Lexa’s face instantly transformed. Her full lips pulled upwards at the corners, her eyes lit up, the tension in her shoulders dropped.

And Clarke was trying to close the distance between them as fast as she could, which is probably why she didn’t see that patch of ice on the sidewalk and her foot slipped out from under her.

“Ahhhh!”

She felt a tight grip on her elbow, which was the only thing that saved Clarke from landing flat on her back.

Lexa was right beside her now, and touching her, which was really everything that Clarke had wanted to begin with. She thought Lexa’s smile might have been warm enough to melt all of the snow and ice around them (and eliminate a public safety hazard as an added bonus).

But all Clarke could do was stare into green eyes, in person, for the first time in months, because she could. Because she was finally able to. Not through a screen, not just in her imagination, but in real life.

“Hi, Clarke.” Lexa’s hand rubbed up and down on Clarke’s arm. “I’ve never had someone so excited to see me that they almost fell over.”

“Shut up,” Clarke mumbled, as she closed the distance between them and wrapped Lexa in a tight hug. Lexa’s arms held her just as desperately. It made her feel safe, wanted, loved. “Thank you for coming. Even if it’s on the way or whatever, it means so much to me.”

Lexa buried her head in Clarke’s shoulder. “Do you really think I would have passed up a chance to see you? I’ve been dreaming about holding you like this for months.”

“Your dreams are so much more G-rated than mine,” Clarke laughed into her hair.

But the way that Lexa’s muscles tightened around her, and her hand wandered down Clarke’s toward her ass, prompted her to think that maybe that wasn’t necessarily true.

Clarke broke away and jutted her hand out to Lexa. “Come on. My apartment is a cozy 67 degrees Fahrenheit, my roommate has strict orders to stay with her boyfriend until tomorrow afternoon, and there’s lasagna in the oven.”

Lexa took her hand and gave her the most beautiful smile. “Have I told you lately how much I love you?”

It was the sight of Lexa in the city, her ranch clothes just a little out of place, the wisps of hair escaping from her braid, her full lips and warm eyes and hand that fit so perfectly in Clarke’s, and now, the sound of Lexa’s soothing voice confessing her love for her once again, that completely did Clarke in.

She pulled Lexa toward her by her hand, hesitated for that split second before their lips touched, remembered the first time they had kissed in the back of her truck (the same truck that was now parked in Clarke’s neighborhood), all of the soft kisses and bruising kisses and the ones that held more promise than any words ever could, the kisses down Clarke’s body that ignited her with every touch, the kisses of good morning and goodnight and goodbye.

But none could prepare her for the kiss of reunion, lips coming together a little out of practice, exploring and relearning the shape of each other. Lexa was the same but different, with their months apart seeming to translate to subtle changes of her mouth, her tongue, her breath. But it was exciting rather than jarring, the familiar and the foreign combining in a heady mix that had Clarke desperate for more.

Lexa pulled back first, swallowing thickly, her lips already swollen and her dark eyes fixed well below Clarke’s. Desire immediately pooled in Clarke, but rather than jump her girlfriend in the middle of the sidewalk, she pulled her by the hand toward her apartment.

“It’s definitely time to get inside,” she said, Lexa’s soft laugh beside her only spurring her to walk faster.

**********

At least Clarke had the foresight and self control to turn off the stove when they got back to her apartment, because otherwise, she probably would have burned down half the building with her charred lasagna. As it turned out, Lexa was more concerned about reacquainting herself with Clarke’s body than with her cooking (which, Clarke decided, was a huge compliment). A line of their scattered clothing led from the front door, to the stove, to Clarke’s bed, leading to a long journey afterward to get re-dressed and Clarke teasing her incessantly when she couldn’t find her underwear (she did, finally, where it had become hooked on the corner of a bookshelf).

By the end of it, no surprise, they were starving. Clarke was too impatient to wait for the stove to warm up again. She cut up the lasagna and microwaved two plates of it, because who had the time for proper food reheating when Lexa was hot and ready and desperately in love with her?

They settled onto the couch--one corner of the couch, obviously, because being separated from each other for even as long as it took to eat dinner was unthinkable--with plates of steaming lasagna. Lexa took one bite and let out a satisfied moan.

“I can’t tell if you like it or not,” Clarke teased, taking a bite herself. She decided it really was good enough to earn Lexa’s admiration.

“I know you taught me how to cook better than I used to, but I don’t make anything like this,” Lexa said with food in her mouth. “I don’t think I could.”

“Sure you could. You just don’t want to.” She ran a hand along Lexa’s side. “I thought you had lost some weight. What am I going to have to do, send you meals every week?”

“Not a bad idea,” Lexa said through a mouth full of lasagna.

“Oh yeah, the medical student working part-time definitely has the time to do that. I guess we’re both going to starve until I graduate.” Clarke watched Lexa continue to devour her lasagna with a smile. “It’s only three and a half more years until then, you know.”

Lexa actually took the time to chew her food and swallow, looking to Clarke with troubled eyes. “It feels like it’s been so much longer than that. Even though I’ve been so busy around the ranch that every day is done as soon as it starts.”

“I know what you mean,” Clarke said. “It’s like there’s never enough time every day for me to learn what I need to, and yet, I’ve only completed one semester. It feels like I’ve been here forever.”

Lexa’s plate of food seemed to be forgotten on her lap as she smiled at Clarke. “It hasn’t been, though. A year ago…” Lexa’s forehead scrunched, in worry or shame, Clarke couldn’t tell. “You were still furious at me, actually.”

Garlic breath or no, Clarke leaned in and placed a kiss on Lexa’s cheek. “And that seems like a lifetime ago.”

“Where do you think we’ll be next year, Clarke?” Lexa asked seriously.

Clarke curled into Lexa’s side, thinking it over. Their future together was never far from her mind. “I think you’ll be making up another reason to come visit me,” she said. “You’ll say it’s to see me, but it’ll really just be so you can eat my food again.”

“That sounds reasonable,” Lexa said with a fond look, earning a slap on her arm from Clarke.

“What else…” Clarke tapped her chin thoughtfully. She could take this opportunity to be serious, but where was the fun in that? They could be serious later. For now, she just wanted to enjoy being with Lexa. “Technology will continue to advance next year. I’ll have a hologram of you dressed in leather lingerie. And even more importantly, same-sex couples will be able to reproduce more easily. I’ll impregnate you with my fingers, and you’ll be at least five months pregnant by this time next year.”

Lexa chuckled to herself, as she curled her fingers into Clarke’s hair. “Wow. This is not going where I expected.”

“Maybe I’ll have been exposed to radiation in the lab, and I’ll become a super genius and graduate early.” Clarke looked up at her as soberly as she could. “Unfortunately, I’ll also have developed a third boob.”

“Unfortunately?” Lexa repeated with a broad smile that Clarke was very tempted to kiss.

“Well, it will be in the middle of my forehead, which means I won’t be able to go out in public anymore. Indecent exposure and all that.”

“Society is so close-minded.” Lexa curled her arm around Clarke’s shoulder and held her close. “Like I always say, the more boobs the better.”

“You have never said that.”

“But I’ve thought it a lot of times.”

Clarke pushed away from her and took back her plate from the coffee table. “Eat your food and tell me what you think we’ll be like next year.”

Lexa hummed thoughtfully to herself and settled a questioning look on Clarke. “Is it alright if my future is less… sensational than yours?”

“Don’t you dare get rid of my forehead boob,” Clarke warned with a grin, pointing a threatening finger at her.

“Alright, we can keep that part,” Lexa said with a small eye roll.

She finished her lasagna and placed the plate to the side, then wrapped her arm around Clarke’s shoulder. Clarke knew it was all a stalling tactic, but she couldn’t complain when Lexa held her like that. She knew just how to make her feel wanted and safe, even in a fantasy-based discussion about their future.

Lexa looked to her seriously. “This is what I think. I’m afraid that despite your forehead addition, you’re not granted any other kinds of powers” Lexa kissed her forehead for emphasis. “You may pick up some new hobbies. Maybe karate, because cities like this one are full of dangerous people.”

Clarke shook her head. Fort Collins was ridiculously safe, but that never stopped Lexa from worrying about her.

“All of your hard work will pay off in your classes, too,” Lexa continued. “You’ll earn a huge scholarship and graduate debt-free. You’ll even have a few thousand dollars left over to take me on vacation.”

“Vacation?” Clarke said in surprise. “And where will I be taking you?”

“Somewhere warm,” Lexa said, smiling over to her. “Somewhere I can stare at you in a bikini all day. Somewhere we won’t have to worry about grades or cattle or anything, just for a few days.”

It was hard to imagine Lexa lounging on a beach with a Mai Tai in her hand, but Clarke was intrigued. She certainly wouldn’t mind watching Lexa in a bikini either. Or swimming with her in crystal-clear blue water. Or watching the sun set over the ocean with her…

“And of course,” Lexa went on as she traced her fingers down Clarke’s arm, “I’m going to be even more in love with you than ever.”

Clarke was tempted to lean over and kiss her. “Such a sweet talked. But you haven’t mentioned carrying my love child yet,” Clarke joked.





But despite Clarke’s tone, Lexa’s eyes turned away. “Actually, I don’t think I’ll ever want to be pregnant. I think I’d rather adopt. Not by next year, of course,” she added quickly, with a check of Clarke’s reaction. “But eventually, once the ranch is stable again, and we’re a little older, and…” She shook her head and laughed self-consciously. “My future isn’t nearly as funny as yours was, Clarke.”

“No, it’s not,” Clarke said, lifting Lexa’s chin so that she looked her in the eye. “But I like it a lot better.”

Lexa gave her that special smile, the one that Clarke loved, that started small and grew and grew until it radiated out of every part of her body. It was like watching the sun rise, starting as just a warm glow on the horizon, then a tiny speck of light, and finally a brilliance that set the world ablaze.

Clarke couldn’t hold herself back. She had to taste the sunshine on Lexa’s lips, let that heat enter into her and transform her from the inside out. She cupped Lexa’s cheeks in her hands as she kissed her. Each pulse of her lips and sweep of her tongue warmed Clarke a little more, allowed life and love to bloom inside of her.

When they drifted apart, Clarke felt like she was in a daze. But when she was finally able to open her eyes, it seemed that Lexa was in a similar state, lips still parted and eyes just fluttering open again. Whatever effect Lexa had on her, Clarke felt like she held a similar power over Lexa.

She took Lexa’s hands into her own and rubbed the back of them gently with her thumbs. “We decided last year that we needed to take things one step at a time. I think we still need to do that. But…” Clarke smiled at Lexa, at the concerned set of her brow. “I’m not going to lie, I like the idea of an adopted Lexa Jr. running around.”

“Or Clarke Jr.,” Lexa added.

“I think we’d be really good at it.” Clarke remembered back to inviting families to stay with them over the summer, how Lexa had interacted with the children. “I’ll be the encouraging, benevolent one, obviously. You’ll pretend to be really tough with them, but as soon as they hug you or pout, it’s all over.”

“I can be tough, Clarke.” Lexa scowled at her as if to prove her point. “Kind and understanding, but very tough.”

“You’re very tough,” Clarke said with a grin, as she let her hands wander to Lexa’s waist. “So tough that you let me drag you to karaoke. And to line dancing. And all the way to Colorado.” A sudden thought occurred to Clarke. “Where did you say you’re buying cattle again? Somewhere in Wyoming?”

Lexa’s eyes went wide for a split second, which Clarke found to be highly suspicious. “It’s a small town,” she said, as her expression went blank.

“Yeah, which one?” Clarke said, eyes narrowing.

Letting out a sigh, Lexa said, “Lance Creek.”

Now very curious, Clarke took her phone from the table and looked the town up. She zoomed out on the map more and more until she was able to see Fort Collins on the same map. “Lexa, Lance Creek is…” She got directions to her apartment. “ Three hours north of here. You literally drove past it to get here.”

Lexa opened her mouth but no words came out.

Clarke put the phone back onto the table then sat cross-legged on the couch to fully face Lexa. “You’re telling me that you added three hours to your trip, each way, just to be able to see me?”

Lexa nodded once. “And I would have added more, if I had to.”

Lexa didn’t seem to understand Clarke’s disbelief. It was the most natural thing in the world for her to drive hundreds of extra miles, in a truck that was as old as Clarke’s mom, with a huge trailer on the back, just to spend a day with her.

In the end, Clarke really had no choice but to kiss her.. “I can see that you’re very tough.” Clarke kissed her again. “You’re going to--” Kiss. “Spoil our--” Kiss. “Adopted love children--” Kiss. “Rotten.”

Lexa was laughing into her mouth and almost smiling too much for Clarke to keep kissing her. But after some persistence, and Clarke pushing on Lexa’s shoulders until she fell backward onto the couch, and an expert placement of her knee between Lexa’s thighs, Lexa’s laughter was replaced by sounds that tugged on Clarke’s heart in a different way.

***********

Clarke settled against the arm of the couch with her legs spread out down the length of it. She patted the cushion in between her legs. “Come on, we’ve got some work to do. This is serious business.”

Lexa rolled her eyes a little but settled herself between Clarke’s legs, her back pushing up against Clarke’s chest. She took her new phone out of her pocket and awakened the screen.

Clarke shifted against the arm of the couch until she was comfortable and wrapped her arms around Lexa. She would use any excuse to hold Lexa like this, especially with how every breath filled her lungs with Lexa’s soft vanilla scent. She peeked over her shoulder at the phone screen. “No password, huh? You’re brave.”

“You know I don’t know how to set that up, Clarke.” Lexa swiped uselessly over the screen which proved her point perfectly.

“OK, well.” Clarke took the phone from Lexa’s fingers and went to settings. “You can use whatever set of four numbers you want.”

“I don’t think I need one. Who’s going to use my phone?”

“Anya,” Clarke said without hesitation. “And trust me, you don’t want her posting to your Facebook. I imagine she would post something… embarrassing to your profile. One time, I left my phone unlocked, and Raven changed my profile picture to a 13-year-old Justin Bieber outlined by a huge heart.”

“Ugh, I hate that guy. Does he have more songs than that ‘Baby’ one?”

Clarke just laughed and kissed her ear. “Yeah, he’s kind of a pop star.”

Lexa just harrumphed and entered in her new password. “OK, what’s next?”

“Now this is the fun part.” Clarke opened up the Facebook app and began signing her up. “This is so weird. I don’t even remember what they ask for when you set up a new profile. Remind me how old you are again, Lexa?”

“Stop.” Lexa punched her thigh but without any fire. “I was too busy for all of this when I was a kid.”

“Of course you were. But that doesn’t stop this from being hilarious.” She scrolled through the years for Lexa’s birthday, going further and further back in time. “But maybe I should have your Facebook age reflect your soul’s age…” She settled on 1945.

Clarke ,” Lexa whined, turning back toward her, lower lip jutting out. She poked Clarke in the chest. “Remember, I’m doing this for you. I’m willing to learn how to use this thing just so you and I can talk more.”

“OK, OK, OK.” Clarke took the finger that was still being jabbed into her chest, intertwining their fingers. “And it means a lot to me. But just because you’re doing a really amazing thing, does that mean I can’t tease you about it?”

“Yes, that’s exactly what that means,” Lexa insisted.

But Clarke shot her a look as she pulled her hand closer. “Remember that time when I was learning how to ride a horse, and I was really sore, and you impersonated me by walking around all bow-legged?”

Lexa’s pout was being replaced by a wide grin. “That’s exactly how you looked. You couldn’t walk right for a week.”

“I think you’re missing my point.”

Leaning in, Lexa brought their lips together in a conciliatory kiss. “Alright. But light teasing only. And if you’re going to choose a different year, 1945 isn’t right. I wouldn’t be a baby boomer. I would have been in World War II, as a pilot, or I would impersonate a man and fight on the front lines.”

“Would you now?” This was the first time that Clarke was hearing about this particular fantasy of Lexa’s, but it was quickly becoming one of her own as well. “You know, I wouldn’t mind seeing you in a uniform. I think you could really pull that look off.”

“I’ll keep that in mind, Clarke,” Lexa said with a suggestive look behind her.

“You and your promises.” Clarke pinched Lexa’s sides, eliciting a laugh, and Lexa’s abs were hard against her fingers. Clarke couldn’t make herself stop, pinching all across Lexa’s stomach, before deciding that this might be a golden opportunity for a tickle fight.

She went for it hard.

Lexa doubled over trying to get away from Clarke’s fingers. “Clarke, stop!” She was letting out sharp barks of laughter, but she still couldn’t get away from Clarke’s grip around her middle. But she gave a mighty shove off of Clarke--

And rolled herself off of the couch and into the coffee table.

Clarke sat up, trying to control her own laughter, because it was not funny how Lexa practically launched herself off of her directly into a piece of furniture. “Oh my God, are you OK?”

Lexa groaned a little, facedown on the floor now. She said nothing, but her hand moved slowly upward and landed on Clarke’s arm.

Clarke felt herself being tugged, and suddenly the world turned upside down. Her leg hit something hard, and once she could open her eyes again she found herself face-down on top of Lexa’s back.

“Lexa.” Strands of Lexa’s hair fluttered in her breath.

“Yes, Clarke,” Lexa said into the carpet, as if this were a completely normal situation.

“You. Are. Ridiculous.”

Clarke felt Lexa struggling to move underneath her, so she propped herself up onto her elbows. Lexa flipped around to her back and gazed up at Clarke with green eyes that were still so bright and proud of themselves (Clarke remembered back to how Lexa had first looked at her on the ranch, gaze threatening and hostile, and she still could hardly believe that those different expressions belonged to the same person). Now, the way her eyes shone at Clarke, they made her feel like she was the most important thing in the world. She felt Lexa’s hands curling around her lower back and pulling her closer. Clarke went willingly.

“I may have caused some damage to your table,” Lexa said, even as her fingers were wandering under Clarke’s sweater and dragging slowly along her skin.

Without looking away, Clarke pushed the coffee table away across the carpet. “An acceptable loss.”

Lexa’s fingers continued their journey up Clarke’s back, but the cold air on her skin wasn’t the only thing making her shiver. When her hands came around to her front and pushed up against her bra, Clarke inhaled sharply. She found herself rocking down against Lexa.

“Is this an elaborate way for you to avoid making your Facebook profile?” Clarke asked, her eyes wandering down to Lexa’s lips.

Lexa didn’t answer immediately, instead slid another hand down Clarke’s stomach and underneath the waist of her jeans. She looped a finger around Clarke’s underwear and tugged just enough for it to pull against her. “What if it is?”

Clarke reached down to her own jeans and unbuttoned them, rocking against Lexa again. “I’d say it’s working.”

She leaned down and kissed her, as she felt Lexa’s fingers unzipping her jeans and run over her underwear. Lexa pushed the small piece of fabric to the side, and the contact of her fingers against Clarke was sudden and very welcome. Clarke straightened and couldn’t help but pass both of her hands across her breasts over her sweater, moaning slightly, as Lexa fingers explored around her, sliding and circling and teasing.

Lexa stared up at her with an intense look. “Off,” she commanded, pulling at the bottom of Clarke’s sweater with her other hand.

Clarke complied, and it was better, as she palmed her own breasts over her bra and began moving her hips above Lexa steadily. She felt Lexa’s fingers enter into her, shallow at first, but Clarke forced her hips down to take in more of them. Lexa’s other hand tugged on Clarke’s jeans, pulling them partway down her legs, and fuck, that was good, because she had more room to rock against her hand, Lexa’s palm hitting against Clarke’s clit with each thrust.

Clarke didn’t know how it had gotten to this. She had really just wanted to tease Lexa and tickle her, but now she was kneeling on top of Lexa and getting quite vigorously fucked even though she was still mostly clothed, and Lexa was fully clothed underneath her. But Lexa’s hand cupping around her ass and squeezing her broke that train of thought completely, and her fingers were moving with a faster rhythm inside of her, pushing against her walls and curling inside of her.

Clarke felt herself buck when Lexa found a particularly sensitive spot. She decided her bra was worthless at this point and unhooked it from herself, throwing it across the room. She prodded and twisted her nipple with one hand, while the other held onto the couch desperately, pulling herself forward with each movement of her hips against Lexa. She watched Lexa staring at her breasts greedily, before Lexa sat forward and took one of them in her mouth, flicking her tongue and sucking down on it.

Lexa’s fingers were reaching further and curling harder. Clarke cried out loudly, arching her back. “Fuck, Lexa.”

Which of course, only made Lexa curl her fingers into that spot again. She looked up at Clarke with so much intensity that brought Clarke even closer. Clarke couldn’t even keep her eyes open. She threw her head back, body rocking in place as Lexa’s grip on her ass tightened. Clarke could feel her body stiffening, as she ground down onto Lexa’s fingers with abandon. All it took was Lexa pushing against her clit again with another pump of her fingers, and Clarke was falling apart on top of her.

Her back arched, Lexa holding her close by her ass, until Clarke collapsed on top of her. Still shaking slightly, she fell onto Lexa’s still fully-clothed chest. They both breathed heavily, their chests heaving in tandem. Lexa’s hands fell onto Clarke’s bare back, holding her tight.

Clarke let herself be held and rested her weight fully on Lexa. She couldn’t help but laugh. “I just wanted to tickle you, Lexa.”

“I don’t believe you.” Lexa kissed her, slow and soft (even though Clarke could still feel the after-effects of Lexa fucking her just a few seconds ago). “Just like I don’t believe you just wanted to tickle me on your birthday, when you almost kissed me in the bar.”

Clarke hid her face against Lexa’s chest. “Busted.”

**********

They finally managed to get Lexa’s profile all set up (with a birthday year of 1925, just as Lexa requested). Despite Clarke’s best efforts, Lexa did not agree to let Clarke assign her profile picture as the one Clarke had taken of her last Christmas, with Lexa wearing an apron. They settled on one of Lexa from the previous summer: Lexa on horseback, her cowboy hat firmly in place, as she gazed out over the grassland. It was one of Clarke’s favorites that she had taken on the ranch, so she supposed it made sense for Lexa to choose that one.

That night, Lexa had calculated how much time they needed in the morning. Clarke had class, and Lexa needed to drive three hours back to the town where she would be purchasing cattle. Lexa reasoned that they should probably play it safe and wake up a full two-and-a-half hours before either of them needed to leave.

“You want us to wake up at 5:30 in the morning?” Clarke whispered sleepily in her ear, her arms wrapped around Lexa’s waist in her bed. “My class isn’t until 8.”

Lexa’s voice was muffled by the pillow. “We’ll need time to wake up. And breakfast, of course.”

“Breakfast, huh?” Clarke smiled into the back of Lexa’s neck. “What am I making you?”

“Pancakes with that strawberry sauce?”

Clarke could tell that Lexa had definitely put some thought into her answer. “See? I knew you only came to see me for my cooking.” Lexa’s elbow in her stomach sent her laughing, despite how tired she was.

“I want to spend more time with you,” Lexa said, as she took Clarke’s arms and tightened them around herself. “The food is just a bonus.”

“Right, right, right.” Clarke couldn’t help but kiss the back of Lexa’s neck. She loved Lexa at all times of the day, but sleepy Lexa was one of her favorites. “But why don’t we do 6 o’clock? That’ll still give me time to make pancakes.”

Lexa just hummed quietly, so Clarke took that as a yes. She set the alarm on her phone and was lulled to sleep in seconds by the weight of Lexa against her chest.

Of course, it didn’t matter how much time they gave themselves the next morning, because it would never be enough. Clarke never thought she would tire of waking up to Lexa shifting against her, her beautiful green eyes fluttering open as she slowly came awake. Lexa’s fingers running across her body, holding her close, would never get old. Naturally, Clarke needed to kiss her perfect mouth, feel that intermingling of comfort and thrill, and good thing that Lexa gave them so much time to wake up that morning, because Clarke found that they needed every minute of it.

But unlike that horrible morning last summer, when Clarke felt paralyzed in Lexa’s cabin, felt like she was betraying the one she loved and abandoning too much of what she valued by leaving the ranch, Clarke thought that this morning was strangely… calm. It didn’t have the same sense of portending doom. It rather just seemed familiar.

Yes, she and Lexa were being separated. Again. But they had done it once before, and they could do it again. They would have to.

So Clarke walked Lexa back out to her truck. The winter sun hung low in the sky, and they were both bundled up against the cold, their breath hanging in the air. They walked slowly down the sidewalk, hand in hand, but Clarke could only feel grateful for the time they had enjoyed together.

Lexa threw her bag into the cab of the truck and turned back to Clarke, a sad but breathtaking smile on her lips. “Sure you don’t want to go to Lance Creek?”

“I wish I could, it sounds like a party. I looked up the population last night. 43.” Clarke laughed, reaching around Lexa’s waist with her arms and sighing in contentment when Lexa did the same to her. She knew some people passing them on the sidewalk would be giving them dirty looks (either because they were two women or just because they were taking up the whole damn sidewalk), but she couldn’t care less. “But I should stay here and… I don’t know, pass my classes or something.”

“You probably should.” Lexa’ eyes flickered across Clarke’s face, as if she was trying to tuck away every detail into her memory. Her grip around her waist tightened. “You know, I don’t think it’s ever going to be easy to say goodbye to you.”

“I hope not,” Clarke said, feeling herself being drawn into Lexa like she was pulling her magnetically. “Because you’re stuck with me, Lexa Woods.”

Lexa was giving her her crooked smile, which Clarke loved. “And you’re stuck with me, Clarke Griffin.”

Clarke let herself be pulled in the rest of the way, felt their lips collide in a wonderful dance. When she felt it becoming more heated, she had to break away. “I’m not going to let you leave me here all hot and bothered, Lexa.”

“That was your doing, not mine,” Lexa insisted, her cheeks glowing in the cold air. She rested her forehead against Clarke’s. “When will I see you again?”

“Well, I was thinking…” Clarke breathed her in, knowing she wouldn’t get another chance to do so for months. She wished she could bottle up Lexa’s scent, and all of the memories that Clarke associated with it, so she could go through them on the particularly hard days. “The research project I’m working on ends this semester. I’ll be free for the summer.”

Lexa pulled back enough to be able to look Clarke in the eye, but she said nothing.

Clarke smiled at her, knowing full well what her answer would be. “I was wondering if you could use a ranch hand again this summer?”

Clarke suddenly felt herself being embraced in a tight hug and being spun around in fast circles. She heard her own laughter ringing out in the crisp air. She was placed back onto the ground gently, Lexa’s broad smile matching her own.

“The whole summer?” Lexa asked excitedly, a little out of breath.

“The whole damn thing,” Clarke confirmed with a smile. “You’ll have to deal with me for four months.”

And then Lexa was kissing her again, and she was still smiling too much for Clarke to be able to kiss her back very well, but Clarke loved it all the same.

“This is perfect,” Lexa said, looking as if she might be grinning for the rest of her life. “I have some ideas for the dude ranch I think you could help with. And of course, I’m working on expanding the herd again, so I could definitely use an extra hand--”

Clarke rested her hand gently on Lexa’s cheek. “And I would love to hear your ideas and help you however I can. But I really need to get to class, and you need to go buy some cattle.”

Lexa nodded, still glowing. “Four months, Clarke.”

Lexa’s enthusiasm was contagious and made Clarke even more excited for the summer. “It’ll be a hell of a lot better than spending one day together.”

One last time, Lexa brought their lips together, but now, instead of a broken-hearted goodbye, it was all anticipation for their future.

Their future, together. Even if for just one summer.

“I love you, Clarke.”

“Love you too, Lexa.”

Only then did Lexa’s smile slip into something more bittersweet, as she stepped into her truck, started the (somewhat sad-sounding) engine, and managed to pull out of the parking spot with her trailer in the first go. Clarke watched her turn the corner, listened for the grumble of her engine to disappear into the general buzz of the city.

They had spent less than a day together (fifteen hours, not like Clarke had counted). And yet, Clarke was more convinced than ever that, no matter how long and arduous their road together may be, Lexa was more than worth the effort.

Chapter Text

Lexa didn’t like to frame her life in terms of best and worst. It was dangerous to create some kind of unsubstantiated view of the past or view it through rose-colored glasses that hid the natural ups and downs of life and made her yearn for something that hadn’t ever existed. But despite her knowledge of this, there was no avoiding it.

That summer was the best of her life so far.

It was undeniably, irrefutably, positively the happiest that Lexa had ever been. She hadn’t remembered ever being so excited to earn a living, or meet new people, or even just wake up in the morning. Some days in her life, especially right after her parents had died, Lexa had only persevered through a tenacious refusal to quit. And even though she still sometimes had bad days, when the weight of responsibility on the ranch seemed too heavy, Lexa couldn’t deny that this, now, with Clarke, was a life that she could be proud of in every way.

Because Clarke made her better. Lexa knew that she wasn’t always very personable. She could always get the job done and make the connections she needed, but Clarke was just… nicer. More sympathetic to other people’s situations, always asking about their businesses and grandchildren and that surgery they had three months ago. And Clarke made such an effort to maintain relationships with those she cared about. Lexa could get caught up in her work and, before she knew it, it had been weeks since she had last seen her friends. But Clarke always made time for them, even when things were busy. Where Lexa fell short, Clarke filled in the gap.

Beyond that, there were so many little moments that let Lexa know how lucky she was to have found Clarke. Clarke waking her up with a fresh cup of coffee. Clarke filling her mind with fresh ideas and new perspectives. Clarke burrowing into her side as they unwound at the end of a long day. Clarke laying down in the grass, “only for a minute,” and falling fast asleep--Lexa had decided to join her rather than wake her up.

Of course, Clarke’s transition back to the ranch that summer hadn’t been without its challenges.

“Lexa, it’s too quiet. I can’t fall asleep.”

“Just wait for me to start snoring,” Lexa said groggily. “I sound like a grizzly bear, remember?”

“That won’t work.” Clarke’s hand started wandering under Lexa’s shirt, bringing her more awake. “I’ll know you’re sleeping, and that will only make me feel more stressed that I can’t sleep.” Her palm was now cupping Lexa’s breast, which made Lexa’s eyes open wide. “But maybe if you help me tire myself out…”

Of course Lexa had helped her. She could lose a little sleep to feel Clarke’s hands and lips roaming over her body, especially if it were for such a worthwhile cause as helping Clarke fall asleep.

But more than that, it was some of the little things. Clarke had to readjust to riding on horseback for hours at a time (her walk the next day reminded Lexa of two summers before, when Clarke had first started to ride). She stalled out the truck again in the driveway (“I can see you laughing, Lexa! Don’t make me come over there!”). She had to rebuild bonds with some of the cattle, who had seemed to forget who she was and that she could be trusted.

No surprise, this was not a problem with Daenerys.

Their first day out in the pastures with the herd, Clarke had dismounted and could only stand in place, hands over her mouth in amazement, as she watched Daenerys run toward her.

The cow sniffed her all over, as if she were reacquainting herself with Clarke. But then Daenerys literally danced --there was no other word for it. She threw her snout back and forth and pranced around on her hooves, so enthusiastically that Clarke started to flail her arms around and dance too. Of course, Clarke had taken Lexa’s hands and pulled her into the dance as well. Lexa’s self-consciousness at dancing in a field full of cattle disappeared as soon as she saw how happy all of this was making Clarke.

And when Daenerys’ new calf finally caught up to his mother, Clarke just about lost it.

She let out a string of incomprehensible sounds as she knelt down on the ground in front of him. He was skittish at first, hiding behind his mother and refusing to come near her, but he eventually found his courage and came up to Clarke to lick her hand.

Clarke just looked up at Lexa with pure joy. “Did you see that? He licked me!”

Lexa just nodded and didn’t tell her until they got back to the cabin that she had gotten a photo of it. (Clarke was ecstatic and had it as her Facebook profile picture for two months.)

“I can’t believe he’s this cute. Your pictures didn’t do him justice,” Clarke said, continuing to run her hands through his fur (and, Lexa knew, checking him for fleas and ticks).

Lexa shrugged but in the end was unable to stay away from the source of Clarke’s joy. She knelt down next to the calf and scratched behind his ear. “I’m not a great photographer, Clarke.”

“It’s not that,” Clarke insisted. “I don’t think film is able to capture his grace and strength of character.”

Lexa could only chuckle. “You’re making him sound like royalty.”

“He is, in a sense.” But at Lexa’s confusion, Clarke continued. “He’s the son of the rightful ruler of the Seven Kingdoms.”

Daenerys had become such a household name in Lexa’s life that she had nearly forgotten where the name had originated. “I should have known,” Lexa said as she spared a glance for the calf’s hooves and legs. Everything seemed healthy.  

“What do you think of Drogon?” Clarke asked her seriously.

“For…?”

“His name.”

“Still naming cattle, Clarke?” Lexa said, unable to hide amusement in her voice. Clarke’s affinity for the cattle was just one of the things Lexa had fallen in love with years ago.

“Only for the royal line, I promise.” She stared at Lexa, obviously waiting for her answer.

Lexa ran her hand along the calf’s back, the young hair soft in her fingers. She looked back to the expectant look in Clarke’s eyes. “I think Drogon is perfect. Although I’m curious what you’ll do when you run out of dragon names.”

Clarke leaned over the calf and kissed Lexa lightly on the lips. “We’ve got a couple years to figure it out.”

Lexa felt herself blushing at Clarke’s casual assurance that they would still be together years from now. Lexa knew that her devotion to Clarke was insurmountable, but knowing that Clarke felt the same way still had the power to shake Lexa to her core.

Meanwhile, their new dude ranch was performing better than ever, to the point that demand during that summer was exceeding their ability to take in guests. But Lexa had thought of a way to deal with this: a slightly more complex application on their website in which the family would have to introduce themselves and why they wanted to visit the ranch. She had no idea how to technically implement it, of course, but she talked it through with Clarke and asked Anya to help with the website side of things.

If nothing else, these new applications provided something for Lexa and Clarke to laugh about when they got back from another long day of ranch duties.

One day in early summer, Lexa scrolled through a new application on her phone (she was getting quite good with her new device, even if Clarke still had to show her how to do some things). She knew just by looking at the family’s picture that they were going to make the final cut. “Take a look at this one,” she said, passing the phone to Clarke beside her in bed.  

Clarke’s eyebrows shot up as she grinned over to Lexa. “Oh my God, lesbians! Like, the gayest of the gay!” She looked back at the phone. “Look at their faux-hawks!”

Lexa pointed at the screen. “Their daughter is hard to see. She’s hiding behind them…”

“Is she in a princess dress?!” Clarke looked at Lexa with puppy dog eyes. “They need to come here. I’ve never felt more strongly about any of the families ever.”

Lexa already knew the family was coming over, but it got better. “Read their family description.”

Clarke scrolled down the application, muttering to herself and speaking clearly when she read something she liked. “... electrician and manager of my own company, OK that’s badass… showing our daughter all different walks of life, I love it… Are you fucking serious?” Clarke took in a deep breath before enunciating, “ my wife loves all kinds of animals and has the bad habit of naming every bird, rabbit, and squirrel that she sees in the park. ” Clarke looked back to her, pleading. “I think this woman is my long-lost sister. When are they coming?”

Lexa loved seeing her like this, barely able to contain her excitement about something dealing with the ranch (and something that Clarke had specifically envisioned to help pull the ranch away from bankruptcy). “It says they can come next month.”

“Write that shit in Sharpie, because they are my new favorite family. Between these guys and Raven and Octavia visiting last year, we may be finding our niche. We could be the gay ranch. Well, the LGBT-friendly ranch, run by two women. There can’t be too many of those.”

“Not many run by women, no,” Lexa said, remembering back to her research while they were still getting the dude ranch aspect of the business set up. “But I’m not sure how many people would be interested. It might be too small of a market.”

“Maybe.” Clarke just shrugged. “But we can ask these nice women to help spread the word, like a real life rainbow bat phone.”

Lexa knew what a bat phone was but didn’t realize it came in rainbow. But it wasn’t uncommon for Clarke to reference things that she wasn’t familiar with, so Lexa let it slide. “I’m willing to try it. Especially if we can avoid any more guests covering their children’s eyes when we hold hands in front of them.”

Clarke laughed, even though getting through that family’s visit had been some of the most awkward days in Lexa’s life. She wagged an eyebrow at Lexa. “If only they knew what we did behind closed doors.”

“And not always behind closed doors.” Lexa thought back to that game night last year, when she had Clarke squirming underneath the dining room table.

(And based on Clarke’s devious smile, she was thinking about it too.)

Lexa let her hand wander to Clarke’s arm and up to her shoulder, because she just needed to touch her. It was a common need. “I think this might be a good idea,” she said more seriously. “We should talk to this family about it when they get here. Truth be told, I don’t know a lot of gay or bisexual or… anything else people around here, besides Anya. But I would enjoy meeting people from other areas.”

Clarke placed Lexa’s phone onto the side table, the application clearly forgotten. “Yeah, I can’t imagine Polis is overrunning with non-straights. But people here did seem pretty open-minded when we were being, uh…” She turned her body toward Lexa, her gaze falling down her body. “Less than subtle in the bar during my going away party.”

Even just that roaming glance, the hint of acts past and to come, were enough to make Lexa’s heartbeat race. “They’ve known me my whole life and are more understanding than some small towns, I think.”

“That’s convenient.” Clarke was now propped up on her knees, hovering in front of her. The way she dipped forward in her tank top left very little to the imagine (but Lexa imagined anyway). Her lips brushed up against Lexa’s neck as she spoke. “Because you know how hard it is for me to keep my hands off of you.”

In one swift movement, Lexa put her hands around Clarke’s waist and tugged her onto her lap. Clarke went willingly, grinning widely, as she settled on top of Lexa. Lexa pulled her down, closer, and Clarke took that as an opportunity to grind her hips down into her. Lexa’s breath hitched in her throat.

“And you can’t keep your hands off of me, either,” Clarke whispered, maddeningly close. She arched an eyebrow, her attitude awakening fire in Lexa. “But I want you to try.”

Lexa’s hands abruptly stopped their journey up Clarke’s thighs. “Try what?”

“Not touching me. But I can touch you.” Clarke ran her tongue along Lexa’s cheekbone, making her shiver.

“And what do I get in return?” Lexa managed to say despite her rapidly beating heart.

Clarke looked down on her, eyes darkening. “You’ll get to do the same to me later.”

How could Lexa say no to an offer like that? She fought against everything inside of her and took her hands off of Clarke’s (perfect, shapely, begging to be touched) thighs, instead moving them back until she was holding the headboard bars behind her. She had to arch her back, which made her chest bulge out in her shirt. Clarke’s eyes roamed over it greedily.

Even though Lexa could see how Clarke’s breathing quickened, Clarke moved with a measured pace. She straddled Lexa with one knee on either side of her body, rose up to her full height, and towered over with her blonde hair falling in cascades around her face. Even though Clarke was still fully clothed, even though she hadn’t yet done anything, Lexa was already finding it difficult to keep her hands behind herself. She readjusted her grip and swallowed hard.

“You can’t touch me,” Clarke repeated, even though everything about her posture, her husky voice, her lips curling to the side, begged Lexa to do just that. “All you can do is kiss me back when I kiss you. Got it?”

“Yes. Alright,” Lexa stammered, just wanting to feel Clarke touching her, feel her lips and her hands all over her body.

“If you touch me, I stop,” Clarke warned, as she arched her body into Lexa’s and brought her lips tantalizingly close to her mouth. “But first, clothes.”

Lexa had to let go of the headboard long enough for Clarke to pull her shirt over her head, but she replaced them there as soon as she could. She had never done this before, with Clarke or with anyone, but she was intrigued to see where it went and how hard it would be to keep her hands off of Clarke. She prided herself on her self control, but would it be enough?

Clarke hummed when she looked down at Lexa’s chest and licked her lips, and Lexa decided right then that no one would have the self control to be able to resist Clarke for long. Still, she remained motionless as Clarke’s mouth descended onto her, warm and wet, circling and sucking on one nipple. Clarke always knew exactly what to do to her, and she wished she could pull Clarke in by the waist, show her what it was doing to her, encourage her to stay on that point and keep going.

But she couldn’t. All Lexa could do was tighten her grip on the headboard rods. She let out a frustrated sigh. It felt amazing, and yet having to keep her hands to herself was maddening.

“Everything alright, Lexa?” Clarke said, as she moved to the other nipple, circling and sucking on that one too.

“Fine, Clarke.” Lexa hadn’t meant for it to sound combative, but the fact that she had to fight so hard just to keep her hands off of Clarke’s body was more frustrating than she thought it would be.

“Good, because this is our pace for tonight,” Clarke said evenly. “I hope it’s fast enough for you.”

No, it certainly was not fast enough. Lexa was already moving her hips against the bed, trying to get any kind of pressure that she could onto herself. But it didn’t work and only seemed to make the ache between her legs worse.

Then Clarke was sitting down on her, holding her hips onto the bed. Despite the slight pressure, feeling Clarke’s skin against hers only ignited Lexa’s need for her more. But Clarke moved slowly, precisely, ran her tongue down between Lexa’s breasts, all the way down to her navel, lower, to the top of Lexa’s shorts. Lexa tried to move into her, increase whatever contact with her she could get, even if it was just her stomach on Clarke’s tongue, because her hips were pinned to the bed and she couldn’t touch her and fuck, all of this was harder than it should have been.

“Clarke…” she couldn’t help but say, in some vain hope that Clarke would get the hint and move faster.

But Clarke just glanced up in an amused way before bending down over her. She toyed with the waistband of Lexa’s shorts, tugging them down an inch at a time. Lexa had to look away, try to forget how Clarke’s breath whispered against her skin, just to fight for some modicum of control. She tightened her hold on the headboard bars and huffed out a breath.

Finally, Clarke pulled the shorts off of her and left behind only her underwear. She threw the shorts to the other side of the room and looked down Lexa’s length with a hum deep in her throat that did absolutely nothing to help Lexa’s attempts at remaining calm. She lowered herself down until she was hovering over Lexa’s body, her hands and knees propping her up. After so many minutes, Clarke still hadn’t touched her, and yet Lexa’s breaths were coming ragged now. Lexa was oscillating between embarrassed and becoming even more turned on by how Clarke could reduce her to this desperate mess with only a few moves of her lips and tongue.

But then Clarke slowly rocked down into Lexa’s core, and it sent a shock through Lexa’s entire body. It was so much sensation that she felt temporarily blind. But then she felt Clarke’s waist under her fingers, and she didn’t even know how that happened. All she knew was that she needed to touch her, needed to make Clarke roll down into her again.

But Clarke was off of her again in an instant, disappointment (and so much arousal) in her eyes. “What did we agree on?” she asked, her breathing almost as ragged as Lexa’s.

Lexa’s cheeks turned red, even though she was almost naked in front of Clarke and had absolutely filthy thoughts running through her mind. She let herself squeeze Clarke’s hips one last time before reaching back and clinging onto the headboard with a death grip. But even if she couldn’t touch her, she refused to take her eyes off of Clarke’s. It felt like the one piece of control she had left.

Clarke just grinned at her, as she settled back down onto Lexa and finally, magnificently, brought their lips crashing together. Kissing her back was the only thing that Lexa was allowed to do, and she did it with abandon, sliding her tongue into Clarke’s mouth and moaning into it, feeling her breath being taken and given in return. She rocked against Clarke’s body as best she could, tried to draw her in with her lips and tongue, tried to communicate what she would do with her hands and fingers if only she were allowed, but the kiss was over far too quickly for her liking.

“Clarke--” she couldn’t help crying out again. As Clarke pulled away from her, Lexa’s body tried to follow, desperately needing her.

But Clarke’s evil grin only widened. She looked down Lexa’s nearly bare body hungrily, and her lips returned to her skin, kissing and sucking hard on either side of her neck, hard enough that Lexa was sure she would have marks for days. Her breathing was ragged as Clarke inched her way down her body again, and Lexa didn’t know if she could hold out if this journey was as slow as the previous one. But even that thought couldn’t last long, with Clarke nipping at her collarbone, licking along the dip in her throat, passing her lips purposefully over her boob. When Clarke’s teeth grazed underneath her boob, Lexa heard herself crying out in surprise. One of her hands left the headboard and nearly reached Clarke’s head, but she returned it with a sound that was awfully close to a whine. She didn’t know how much more of this she could take.

When Clarke reached the top of her underwear once again, the throb between her legs was reached a fever pitch. Even though Lexa kept her hands firmly on the headboard bars, she couldn’t help how her leg bent upward gently into Clarke, right between her legs. Clarke’s tiny moan wasn’t any motivation for Lexa to stop, so she kept rolling her knee into Clarke, and watched the way that Clarke’s eyes fluttered.

“No,” Clarke finally said, propping herself up over her again. Lexa let her legs slacken down on the bed with some effort. “But nice try,” Clarke said breathlessly.

Clarke was over her underwear in an instant, kissing the hem of it, pressing her lips down and down past but bypassing where Lexa needed her the most, traveling down one leg and crossing over to the other. Lexa was practically writhing on the bed, letting out tiny sounds that she had no control over. Clarke’s occasional glance up to her only made Lexa even more desperate.

At last, when Clarke’s lips moved over her crotch and kissed her over the fabric of her underwear, Lexa was a goner. She pressed downward into Clarke’s kiss even as she let out a whimper.

But rather than scold her for moving, Clarke just closed her eyes as her mouth lingered there. “I can smell you through the fabric,” she said in a low voice. She traced her lips all along the lower edge of Lexa’s underwear, and Lexa had to battle against everything inside of her to crush her legs around Clarke’s body, hold her by the hair and direct her where she wanted her, to do anything other than just lay there suffering in the most exquisite way possible.

Luckily, Clarke was moving a little faster now. Maybe this game was becoming too much for her too. She pulled the underwear off in one movement and crouched in front of Lexa for a long time, staring between her legs for so long that Lexa wondered if she had broken another rule and not realized it.

So when Clarke unexpectedly placed a gentle kiss onto Lexa’s clit, Lexa thought her head might explode. It was such a small touch, barely there, and yet after everything Clarke had done to her, Lexa felt herself almost come.

“Clarke…” she whined again, because she couldn’t do anything else. All she could do was pant and writhe and make her knuckles go white by how tightly she was gripping the headboard. “Please don’t stop,” she heard herself saying. It sounded so desperate, but she was. She would deny it forever once this was over, but for right now, she would say whatever it took to make Clarke touch her.

To her surprise, Clarke let out a sound that Lexa would almost call a growl. Clarke sprang into motion, taking both of Lexa’s legs and propping them onto her own shoulders before immediately plunging her tongue into Lexa.

It was everything Lexa had been waiting for. Lexa felt herself tighten up, felt pleasure shooting through her, felt her eyes slam shut and a moan so loud she even surprised herself escape her. Clarke’s tongue was everywhere, passed into her opening and out again and around her clit. That’s all that it took for Lexa’s body to stiffen. Shudders ran through her as the orgasm took her but Clarke never slowed down. She held on tightly to her hips, held her in place as Lexa’s body shook around Clarke’s tongue.

Lexa felt herself coming down off of the high of it, but it still felt so good, and she was moaning again, and all she could do was take one of her hands and ball it up into a fist and bite down on it, because Clarke’s tongue and mouth were continuing their work, focusing on her clit, swirling and sucking and licking, and it was too intense for Lexa to be able to handle without biting down on herself.

As overwhelmed as she was, Lexa hadn’t even realized that Clarke’s hand had left her hip. But  she felt three fingers at least sliding into her easily, making filthy sounds in her wetness, as Clarke’s mouth focused on her clit and the upper folds of her. Lexa felt herself fill, felt Clarke’s fingers reach into the farthest corners of her, pump in and out of her at a vigorous pace that had Lexa rocking up into Clarke’s face all over again. But Clarke was only moaning into her, didn’t seem to mind that Lexa may not have been holding onto her with her hands, but she was squeezing around Clarke’s ears with her legs and pushing herself further into Clarke’s mouth and onto her fingers.

With each pulse of her fingers, their subtle twist at their deepest point, Lexa felt herself coming again. Clarke moaning against her again was what finally did it, and Lexa’s body was sent into another quivering, uncontrollable mess. After being wound up so tightly, Lexa was spent. She collapsed onto Clarke’s shoulders and could only lay there gasping. Soon, Clarke came out from under her and placed her hips gently onto the bed. Clarke traveled back up her body and kissed her, but Lexa was so exhausted that she barely had the energy to kiss her back.

“May I touch you now?” Lexa managed weakly before Clarke kissed her again.

Clarke didn’t answer, just took Lexa’s hands from the headboard and placed them firmly onto her hips. She fell to Lexa’s side with her leg splayed across her. “You did better than I thought you would,” Clarke said, kissing just under her chin.

But Lexa was still gasping and couldn’t respond. She ran her hands all along Clarke’s skin, let herself finally feel Clarke’s curves under her touch, take in Clarke’s beauty with another one of her senses.

Lexa must have stayed silent for too long, and Clarke laughed against her neck. “Are you OK? Was that too much?”

“Not too much,” Lexa said as her breathing evened out. “But it was harder than I thought it would be. And very intense.”

“Yeah, well.” Clarke kissed underneath her chin and tightened her leg around her. “I’m pretty hot, you know.”

“I am more than aware.” Lexa let her hand slide down Clarke’s back and flirt with the top of Clarke’s ass. “When are you going to let me do the same to you?”

“Not now,” Clarke said quickly, as she pulled Lexa closer and rested her hand across her chest. “I’m not done touching you yet.”

And maybe Lexa was just soft, but she didn’t think she was done with Clarke touching her yet either. She felt their breathing even out, their chests rising rhythmically against each other, as they drifted off to sleep.

**********

They received new guests all summer long, including the lesbian couple and their daughter. One of the unforeseen perks of inviting people of all walks of life to their ranch was that they seemed to learn something new with each new family. The electrician mom helped Lexa figure out why one of the cabin outlets wasn’t working. Another couple was able to show Clarke how to make different types of pastries. And the children never ceased to amaze Lexa: their innocent wonder at mooing cattle, chirping crickets, and neighing horses; their ability to make anything into a game; their endless curiosity that Lexa hoped would never be extinguished

The summer was simply not long enough for Lexa’s liking. Clarke hosted her last family for the summer, attended and won her last game night, dropped by her favorite businesses in Polis (ostensibly for supplies, but Clarke somehow returned to the cabin without purchasing anything. Lexa knew she just wanted to say goodbye to her friends in town).

And although Lexa tried not to think about it this way, she couldn’t help but count down the days in her head. Clarke’s last Tuesday on the ranch… her last Wednesday… But Lexa thought it made her cherish her last days of summer with Clarke all the more. For even though Clarke planned on returning to the ranch next summer as well, Lexa knew that life didn’t always allow for what they wanted. But in the end, it didn’t matter when they would be able to be together again. Lexa would wait for her for as long as it took.

When Clarke’s last day finally arrived, it was almost as difficult to say goodbye as it was the first time. It didn’t matter that they already had a year’s worth of experience dealing with the long distance between them. Lexa could only hold her tighter as she thought how she would no longer be able to wake up with Clarke and the morning’s soft light on her cheeks. How could she kiss her goodbye when Clarke’s lips were able to confess her love, make her laugh, draw out her deepest desires?

But when Clarke’s car once again pulled away from the ranch, Clarke waved back to her in the cloud of dust sent up by the tires. Once again, Lexa had to learn to adjust to life with Clarke far away.

Lexa threw herself into her work, but she went to bed every night keenly aware of Clarke’s absence. She told herself it was only a matter of time until she and Clarke would be able to be together again, but that offered little solace to her in her lonely days and lonelier nights. She kept a close eye on the cattle as the weather cooled, sold the calves when they reached the desired weight, and prepared for another long winter, made all the longer by Clarke being so far away.

But as it turned out, winter could have its pleasant surprises.

One day, Clarke cleared her throat over the phone. “So the dates for winter break came out today. Even with my lab job, I’m getting a couple weeks off. And…” Lexa could imagine Clarke biting her tongue in the silence. “I’m wondering if you’d like to spend a few days over the holidays with my mom and me. In Seattle.”

Lexa realized she was gripping the phone so tightly that she might crush it in half. She relaxed her fingers and switched the phone to her other ear. “You want me to spend the holidays with you. And your family,” she reiterated, just to be sure.

“Yes?” Clarke said with some hesitation. “Listen, if you think it’s too much--”

“Clarke.”

“But I’ve told her a lot about you, and she really wants to meet you, and lots of other family will be there too--”

“Clarke.”

Finally, Clarke stopped her rambling and waited for Lexa to speak.

Lexa smiled at how nervous Clarke must have been to ask her this. “Of course I want to meet your mother. This isn’t too soon or too big of a step. I think it’s perfect.”

“Oh good.” Lexa could hear the stress leaving Clarke all at once. “I mean, it is a big step, though. You’re not just meeting my mom but traveling a thousand miles to do it. And… Christmas day will have my aunt and uncle, and my cousins who were able to travel home. It can be kinda hectic.”

Hectic or not, Lexa wasn’t about to pass up an opportunity to be with Clarke again, even if she would be more than happy to spend another Christmas snowed in at the cabin, as long as Clarke was there. “I can handle it. I want to meet her and see where you came from.” Lexa quieted. “I want to be with you, Clarke. All of you, including the part of you with a family.”

“Thanks, Lexa,” Clarke said, sounding relieved. “And I’m not going to make you pay for your plane ticket, obviously. It’s to visit my family, so--”

“You don’t have to do that,” Lexa interrupted.

“Yes, I do.” Clarke’s voice was stubborn. “I’m not going to make you put up with my mom and make you pay for your ticket.”

“I can do it, Clarke. The ranch is doing better, and I don’t need charity just to buy one plane ticket.”

Clarke was silent for a long moment. “It’s not charity, Lexa. But the ranch is still getting back on its feet, and I know you don’t need the help, but I want to do this. I’m asking you to let me do this for you.”

Lexa held the bridge of her nose in one hand. It just didn’t make any sense for Clarke to buy this for her. “You’re already buying your own ticket to Seattle. I know you’re not working very much, and you’re still a student. Money is tight.”

“I am very aware of my financial status, Lexa. More aware than you, in fact,” Clarke said tightly. “Yes, I only work a few hours a week. And yes, I have more debt than I like. But I’ve budgeted for this. And in a couple of years, I’m going to be a vet and raking in beaucoup dollars. I can do this, and I want to.”

But Lexa didn’t see the point of Clarke going more in debt to do this when Lexa could afford it outright. At the same time, Clarke was adamant about doing this for her. “Why don’t we compromise?” Lexa suggested. “I pay half, you pay half. I want to be able to look your mother in the eye and say that I’m not taking advantage of you.”

“You’re not taking advantage of me, Lexa.” Clarke let out a huff of frustration. “But OK. You can pay for half of it. But you won’t be buying anything once we’re in Seattle.”

“Clarke.”

That’s all she had to say. Clarke sighed into the phone again. “I just… this is weird for me, OK? I feel like I put you out when you drove six hundred miles out of your way to see me back in January, and now I’m asking you to do the same for Christmas. I’m just trying to make it easier for you.”

“All that trip down to see you cost me was a little bit of gas money and a few hours of my time. You’re not inconveniencing me, Clarke. I want to see you, and I want to meet your mom. This trip isn’t just for you. It’s for me too.”

“Alright,” Clarke said, sounding more convinced. “So halfsies on everything?”

“Halfsies on everything,” Lexa repeated, feeling foolish saying it like that, but she knew Clarke was smiling on the other end of the phone, which made it worth it.

**********

While the waiting and the crowds were uncomfortable, Lexa found that she actually quite enjoyed flying. She had flown only once before in her life, and it was still exhilarating how the plane accelerated fast enough to pin her to the back of her seat and made her stomach flutter when they lifted off the ground. She stared out the window for hours, watching river-carved lowlands and snow-capped peaks passing by below her. But as she crossed onto the other side of the mountains, low gray clouds prohibited her sightseeing. They descended into Seattle in a dense fog of cloud and rain.

Her first impression of the airport was that it was huge. It took her two maps, one TSA officer, and an extended phone call with Clarke to find where Clarke was waiting for her. But when Lexa finally found herself walking out of the correct security exit, she was greeted by the brightest smile she had ever seen.

“You made it,” Clarke said, opening her arms wide and wrapping them around Lexa’s shoulders.

Lexa settled into her arms, resting her head in the crook of Clarke’s neck like she loved doing. She ran her hands up and down Clarke’s back to relearn the shape of her. It may have only been a few months since she had last been able to do this, but it had been far too long. “You say it like you’re surprised.”

“Just happy.” Clarke pulled back only to rest her hand along Lexa’s cheek and pull her in for a kiss. She hummed against Lexa’s mouth. “There’s going to be much more of that later.”

“I hope so,” Lexa said against her lips. But she glanced around them hurriedly. “Your mom isn’t here, is she?”

Clarke just laughed and tightened her arms around Lexa’s shoulders. “No, silly. I would have the good sense to introduce you two before making out with you in the airport.” She took Lexa’s hand, as Lexa slung her bag over her shoulder again. “She’s just getting off work now at the hospital. How does meeting her for dinner sound?”

Lexa couldn’t help her sudden exhalation of breath. “Perfect.”

Clarke squeezed her hand, looking at her with calm eyes. “She’s going to love you, Lexa. Well, maybe not at first.”

Lexa shot her a (maybe somewhat panicked) look.

“I’m kidding,” Clarke said with a laugh. “She might take a few minutes to come out of authoritarian doctor mode after her shift, but after that she’ll be chill. I’ve already told her all about you, and she’s very interested in the whole ranch thing. But when in doubt, just ask her about the hospital she works at. She can vent about her co-workers and patients for days.”

“I can do that,” Lexa said, feeling a little calmer as they passed through the crowds toward the exit.

“And after that, we’re going to meet up with Raven and Octavia for some drinks.” Clarke led Lexa out of the airport to the taxi line up. She pulled Lexa closer by her belt loops, and Lexa went willingly. “After that,” Clarke said with her blue eyes full of suggestion, “I’m all yours.”

But then their driver was taking Lexa’s bag and placing it in the trunk of the taxi (Lexa’s first taxi--she tried to pretend it wasn’t weird to have a complete stranger drive her somewhere). They climbed into the backseat, Clarke sitting in the middle to be close to her. Lexa didn’t mind at all.

As they left the airport behind, rain pattering against the window, everything so unfamiliar, Lexa found comfort in Clarke leaning into her side: Clarke’s wandering touch, the tickle of her hair against Lexa’s neck, her heady scent.

“I’m glad you invited me here, Clarke,” she whispered into Clarke’s hair, as her hand found Clarke’s and squeezed it gently.

“Let’s see if you feel the same way after meeting my family,” Clarke teased. But as she exchanged a long look with Lexa, she said, “I’m glad you came, Lexa. For me.”  

Although she knew the driver was literally right there, Lexa couldn’t resist any longer. She leaned into her, held her close, kissed her as the car jostled and lurched in rush hour traffic. But it was hard to notice anything else when Clarke’s lips were awakening her after a months-long sleep.

She was sure that her lips were kiss-bruised and swollen by the time they reached the restaurant, but she couldn’t really find it in herself to care what she looked like, when Clarke held her hand and looked at her like she was valuable, like she was worth every ounce of effort it took for them to be together.

They ran inside the restaurant through a drenching rain, and Clarke’s mother was already waiting for them. She had her hair pulled back into a ponytail, and her blouse and slacks were sharp even after her long day at work. Lexa searched her features for tell-tale signs that she was indeed Clarke’s mother. It was only when Abby looked up and saw Clarke that Lexa knew for sure it was her: Abby’s smile was exactly the same as Clarke’s.

“Clarke, I’ve missed you so much,” Abby said as she pulled her daughter into a tight hug.

“It’s only been a year and a half, Mom” Clarke said, her voice sounding a bit strangled, even though Lexa noticed she was hugging her mom back just as hard. “But I’ve missed you too.”

When they parted, Lexa felt Abby’s discerning gaze assessing her. She made herself stand tall under the scrutiny.

Yes, she was meeting her potential (probably-definitely) mother-in-law. Yes, this may have been the most important dinner of Lexa’s life. And yes, she wanted to impress Abby and make her understand the scope of Lexa’s love for her daughter. Despite all of that, Lexa felt calm.

(Maybe it was the way that Clarke watched her, as if she trusted her without reservation.)

Lexa extended her hand and shook Abby’s. “It’s nice to finally meet you, Mrs. Griffin. I’m Lexa.”

“Call me Abby, please.” She settled back into her chair, while Clarke and Lexa sat across from her. “I’m so glad you could come all the way out here. Clarke has told me a lot about you and the ranch. Where is it, exactly? She’s told me somewhere in Montana, but my grasp on Montana geography is a little lacking.”

After Lexa told her, Abby’s subsequent line of questioning told her that Abby wanted all of the details. So Lexa told her about how her mother was the third in her family line to inherit the ranch, how her parents had met while her father had been working there over the summer, and how Lexa had taken on sole responsibility for the ranch after her parent’s death. She described how the ranch had been constricting, how Lexa struggled to do everything on her own, how that had led her to hire Clarke, and how Clarke had turned her entire ranch and world upside down.

All through Lexa’s recounting, Clarke’s hand held hers firmly under the table. They were in this together.

All told, it was a pleasant meal. Lexa had only eaten sushi twice in her life, but this sushi was far superior to anything she had ever had before. They ended up ordering more, mostly because Lexa was eating so much of it. (She didn’t feel especially apologetic. She had skipped lunch.) When Abby seemed satisfied at Lexa’s description of her life and the ranch, Lexa took Clarke’s advice and asked her about work at the hospital. Sure enough, she went off on a mini-rant about a particularly onerous patient from her day. It opened up a whole line of questioning for Lexa, and by the end of it, she thought she understood why Clarke had decided to become a veterinarian instead (for one, the animals never talk back).

After dinner, Lexa sat in the backseat of Abby’s car on their short drive made long in Seattle’s traffic. The conversation continued unabated in the front, mostly about Clarke’s classes and supervisors, but Lexa stared out the window at the drizzle hitting her window: the flash of red brake lights all around them on the busy freeway, the specks of city lights that extended out in every direction, the roaring of engines and passing of semi trucks. Humanity and development were everywhere. It was a different world entirely out here.

But eventually they were pulling into the Griffin household’s garage, unloading her bag, and warming up in front of the gas fireplace with mugs of tea. Abby threw them the TV remote and told them to watch whatever they wanted while she changed out of her work clothes.

As soon as Abby disappeared around the corner, Clarke wasted no time at all and leaned forward from her place on the floor to kiss Lexa. It was exactly what Lexa needed, the warmth of the fire beside them and Clarke awakening that fire within. But Clarke’s attention became less innocent, as she moved on to nibble on her ear and ran her (quite cold) hands underneath Lexa’s sweater and up her abs. Even as Lexa leaned into the touch and felt her own hands beginning to glide across Clarke’s skin, she realized that Abby coming around the corner at that moment might end her favorable first impression with her at dinner.

“I can’t wait to have you all to myself later tonight,” Clarke whispered in her ear. All of Lexa’s fears dissipated as Clarke tugged down on her earlobe with her teeth. “I’m going to fuck you so hard.”

But when Abby walked into the room again a second later, Clarke, more naturally than Lexa thought possible, casually placed her hand back onto Lexa’s waist (quite chastely) and kissed her cheek (the very picture of propriety), as if she hadn’t just whispered something aggressively sexual into her ear moments before.

Lexa readjusted herself on the ground to try to relieve some of the aching between her legs, and Clarke watched her knowingly.

Clarke’s phone vibrating on the table was their reminder that they were far from done for the evening. Since visit to Seattle was only three days long, they had no time to waste. And Raven, of course, insisted on seeing them.

They caught an Uber downtown, which was even more strange to Lexa than a taxi (people willingly drove complete strangers around in their own vehicles? Madness). Holding the umbrella over them against the drizzle, Clarke took her hand and led her down the sidewalk and into an alley. Lexa thought that maybe they should stick to the well-lit street instead, but they soon arrived at a nondescript door with a single green light beside it.

Walking inside was like stepping back into the 1930s. Brick walls, leather couches, ornate ceiling tiles, and classy clientele that immediately made Lexa feel underdressed. But Raven and Octavia waved at them from one of the couches, and Lexa suddenly didn’t feel quite as out of place.

As Lexa hugged Octavia lightly, Raven pulled Clarke into a bear hug. But Lexa wasn’t spared from Raven’s surprisingly strong grip as she enveloped Lexa into her arms next.

“I can’t believe you’re here!’ Raven practically yelled into her ear. All four of them settled back onto the couches, Raven taking a sip of her nearly-empty cocktail. “It’s so weird seeing you away from the ranch. How are you liking Seattle?”

“I’ve only been here for about three hours,” Lexa said. “But the sushi is great, and the rain hasn’t let up once.”

Octavia let out a bark of a laugh. “It hasn’t let up since October. Welcome to Seattle.”

Lexa and Clarke ordered cocktails at the bar--Lexa’s eyebrows rose practically into her hairline when she saw the price, but Clarke shushed her and slid her credit card to the bartender before Lexa could react.

“I thought we were going halfsies?” Lexa protested, shooting Clarke a look.

“I’ll let you get the next round.” Clarke handed her the glass that the bartender slid along the bar. “But you shouldn’t have to pay for your ‘welcome to Seattle’ drink.”

Lexa wasn’t entirely convinced of that, but she took a sip anyway. She knew it had whiskey in it, but she was taken aback by how the alcohol was balanced by a sweet, almost spicy taste. “I don’t know what this is, but it’s incredible.”

“And that’s why it costs $11,” Clarke quipped, trying her own drink as well. She looped an arm through Lexa’s as they made their way back to their couch. “This is where we would come first whenever we had something big to celebrate in university. A final exam, a big football game, whatever. We’d head to the cheaper bars after, but we liked to pretend we were fancy first.”

The way that they all fell into easy conversation, Lexa almost couldn’t believe that it had been over a year since they had all been together. Raven was nearly done with her master’s in civil engineering (“I’ve gotten pretty good at building things, not just blowing them up,” she said); and Octavia was wrapping up her research paper and would be defending it in a few months (“I dream about the interactions of Native American and white American culture in my sleep now. I wish I were kidding”).

When Octavia wrapped her arm around Raven’s shoulder and whispered something into her ear, the intimacy of the gesture was too much for Lexa to hold back her curiosity any longer. She decided a subtle approach was best. “You guys have been together for a long time now. Almost as long as Clarke and I.”

Octavia gave Raven an admiring look as she squeezed her shoulders. “Yeah, we’re good for each other. I keep her grounded. Without me, her head is so far up in the clouds that it might fly away.”

“Not true,” Raven protested. “I study math all day, for Christ’s sake. I’m as logical as they come.”

“Then explain to me why you almost dropped $10,000 on a brand new motorcycle?” Octavia asked. “When I have one that works perfectly fine?”

Raven grumbled something under her breath. “I wanted us to be in a motorcycle gang.”

“A motorcycle gang of two?”

Raven threw up her hands a little. “We could terrorize rich neighborhoods with our obnoxiously loud bikes! It would be perfect!”

Clarke turned to Raven and Octavia thoughtfully. “So you’re planning your purchases out together.”

“I guess.” Raven answered noncommittally.

“And you moved in together, what…” Clarke tapped her chin. “A year ago?”

“It was before the beginning of last school year,” Octavia said.

Clarke finished the last of her cocktail. “So when are you guys getting married?”

There was a moment of stunned silence before Raven and Octavia burst out laughing.

“Oh please,” Raven said, smiling up into Octavia's face. “We dismissed that idea ages ago.”

“Marriage is a patriarchal institution,” Octavia went on more patiently. “We don’t need to sign a legal contract to prove that we love each other.”

“I know you don’t need to get married,” Clarke said with a far-off look in her eyes that Lexa couldn’t look away from. “But what about gathering your friends and families together? The dancing and the pretty dresses?”

But Raven just laughed. “And crazy micromanaging parents, and feuding over the stupidest shit, and let’s not forget about the insane price tag.”

“I know weddings can be crazy, but…” Clarke sighed a little. “There’s something about them.”

“Yeah, well, you should go have a big fat Greek wedding or whatever. You two are a lot more traditional than we are, so it makes sense,” Raven said, even as Lexa felt her cheeks flushing slightly at Raven’s assumption that she and Clarke were getting married (but weren’t they?).

“As traditional as two women marrying each other can be,” Octavia threw in.

“Exactly,” Clarke said with a thankful hand gesture toward Octavia. “So it doesn’t matter what we do--” (Lexa gulped, because now Clarke was referring to herself and Lexa marrying). “If we get married, it’ll still be subversive as fuck.”

“I don’t care about being subversive,” Raven said. When Octavia looked at her reproachfully, Raven patted her shoulder. “Sorry, hun, that’s your deal, and I get it, but what I really care about is the money, and what we can do with it instead.” She turned her attention back to Lexa and Clarke. “You know what we get to do with all of our hard-earned cash instead of wasting it on a wedding? Thailand.”

“Maybe,” Octavia quickly interjected.

Raven went on unrestrained. “I already let her convince me not to get the bike, but Thailand is definitely happening.” She turned to Octavia with pleading eyes. “We can do it cheap. Hostels, camping on the beach, hitchhiking. And I think you’re forgetting that I’m about to be a bonafide engineer soon, making bonafide engineer dollars.”

Octavia watched her go on with increasing amusement. Finally, she leaned forward and kissed Raven before patting her cheek slightly. “We’ll go as soon as you learn Thai.”

“No, no, no,” Raven said, wagging her finger. “You’re way better at languages than I am. There’s no way I can learn that. Even the alphabet is different. And there’s, like, tones .” She practically spat the word.

“Better get practicing then, babe,” Octavia said with a raised eyebrow. “But you can already pronounce everything on the menu at that Thai place we go to, so I have full faith in you.”

Clarke cleared her throat and looked askance at Raven. “I’m pretty sure Raven only wants to go to Thailand for the food,” she mumbled.

“So what if I do? There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that,” Raven said, getting to her feet and gathering all of the empty cocktail glasses. “What are we doing? We getting another drink here or moving on?”

Lexa desperately wanted to have this conversation with Clarke again--about weddings, not Thailand--in a different setting. In the back of her mind, she had assumed that Clarke would want a wedding, but what kind of wedding? How large? And very importantly, where? But before her mind could go any further down that rabbit hole, Lexa told herself that she first needed to confirm that Clarke was interested in the whole idea of marriage to her in the first place.

“Didn’t you mention another bar down the street?” Lexa said. She really was interested in seeing what else Seattle had to offer, as well as another of Clarke’s college days haunts, even if the thought of marriage echoed in the back of her mind.

The next place felt more familiar, still dimly lit but with a row of pool tables and dart boards and much more reasonably priced drinks. Lexa stuck with whiskey (why mess with a good thing?), and she didn’t know if it was the whiskey, her sudden fixation on what it would be like to marry Clarke, or just her own barely-contained need, but it was becoming increasingly difficult to keep her hands off of Clarke.

Despite the chilly damp outside, Clarke had elected to wear a thin v-neck that night that drew Lexa’s eye more and more as the evening went on. Paired with her tight jeans, it was practically criminal. It didn’t help that Clarke was running casual (or not so casual) touches along her arm, her shoulders, down her back. Lexa knew that they needed to meet up with Raven and Octavia while they could, and she was glad that they had the opportunity to do so, but she had been apart from Clarke for far too long to not physically ache for her.

At one point in the evening, all she and Clarke had to do was look at each other. Lexa swore she saw Clarke’s eyes darken immediately.

“It’s getting late,” Clarke announced to the group, as she stretched her arms above her head and placed one arm around Lexa’s shoulders. “We better get out of here.”

“Better things to do, Clarke?” Raven asked with a suggestive look in Lexa’s direction.

But they all hugged goodbye, swore to see each other sooner rather than later, and took their respective Ubers home. Away from the public eye, Lexa couldn’t help but slide close to Clarke and run her hand up Clarke’s leg. She watched Clarke’s chest rise and fall as her breathing quickened.

“How long til we get home?” Lexa whispered in her ear, letting her hand wander further.

“Not long enough for that,” Clarke said as she stopped the upward migration of Lexa’s hand with a touch. “But long enough for this.” She pulled Lexa in for a kiss that turned less than innocent in no time at all.

When they finally made it back, Lexa was only able to keep from pushing Clarke up against the front door by some miracle of self-control. Even inside the house, she didn’t allow herself to kiss Clarke, since she didn’t know if Abby was awake or where she was. She tugged Clarke to their room, and they had barely gotten inside and closed the door before Lexa closed the distance between them all at once, the pent-up energy she had from an entire evening of being near Clarke but not being able to do this finally being released into their kiss.

Clarke panted against her, pushing her up against the door. Loud.

“Shit,” Clarke said, still pushing herself against her and running her tongue across Lexa’s lips. She let out a tiny moan into Lexa’s mouth. “We have to be quiet though.”

“Very quiet,” Lexa agreed before kissing her again like Clarke was the only way she could get air. “I’ve been wanting to do this since the airport,” she said, as she pushed Clarke toward the bed.

“Only since the airport?” Clarke shrieked a little as Lexa pushed her down onto the bed, but Lexa’s mouth on her prevented any more noises like that.

Lexa barely let Clarke tear off her clothes before she was on her again. She let her need for Clarke run through her uncontrolled, let it take her over. Clarke looked up at her with hungry eyes that only spurred her on.

Maybe Clarke had expected to be the one that did all the ravishing that night, but Lexa was on top of her, sucking on her neck, fingers sliding through the heat between her legs, and she had no intention of stopping now. She pushed into her and found Clarke more than able to accommodate her. Although she began slowly, Lexa increased her pace until sweat was streaming down her back. Clarke arched into her, mouth open and letting out small sounds that were doing all the right things for Lexa. But she kissed Clarke again to cover them up and let her release them into her mouth instead. She kept kissing her until Clarke shook beneath her, and she held her steady and quiet. She kept up a steady pace until Clarke stilled.

Collapsing back onto the pillows, Clarke wiped her hair out of her face and looked up at Lexa with a surprised expression. But Lexa just settled down onto her in satisfaction, pleased at how she had made Clarke come so strongly in just a few minutes.

“What. The Fuck.” Clarke pulled her down into another kiss, still heated. “I know we haven’t seen each other in a few months, but damn.”

“Was I satisfactory, Clarke?” Lexa asked with as straight a face as she could muster.

Clarke twisted their legs together and pulled her in for another kiss. “Very satisfactory.”

Lexa lay beside her in a daze, the energy that the day required finally catching up to her. Still, she couldn’t help but run her fingers along Clarke’s stomach. As tired as she may be, having Clarke there beside her made her think think that sleep was far down her list of priorities.

But as much as Lexa would like to feel Clarke’s touch running down her body as well, she had other urgent matters to discuss first. “How did I do with your mom, Clarke?” Lexa asked seriously, shifting the mood between them.

“You did great.” Clarke reached over and tucked some hair behind Lexa’s ear. “But this visit isn’t a test you have to pass. All you have to do is be yourself.”

Lexa had told herself that a thousand times already, but it didn’t change the fact that she wanted her time with Abby to be meaningful. “It’s important to me that I establish a relationship with her.”

“Why’s that?” Clarke asked softly, as she tugged her a little bit closer.

Lexa tilted her head up to Clarke’s on the pillow. Despite the dark room, she could still see the brightness and clarity in Clarke’s eyes. “Because I would like to marry you one day, Clarke.”

Clarke’s gazed held hers steadily, and her mouth gaped open, but Clarke didn’t say anything. Or maybe she couldn’t.

“This isn’t a proposal,” Lexa said quickly into the silence. She already knew how she would like to propose to Clarke, and laying in her childhood bed wasn’t it. “But we’ve talked about being together, about being with each other when our lives allow it. So I’m wondering if you’d like to get married and have that wedding that you were talking about tonight, with the friends and family and pretty dresses.” Lexa found her mouth suddenly dry. “With me.”

“But this isn’t a proposal?” Clarke finally said, as she ran a hand gently down Lexa’s cheek.

Lexa just shook her head. Forming thoughts, let alone words, was impossible when Clarke looked at her like that.

“It sounded an awful lot like a proposal,” Clarke said before kissing her softly. She stared at Lexa for a long time, her eyes flickering back and forth between hers. “But I think I would like to marry you, Lexa.”

“You would?” Lexa couldn’t help but ask.

“Of course I would. Have you looked at yourself in a mirror lately?” Clarke teased before giving Lexa a more serious look. “I know we said that we would take things one step at a time. And we have been.” She motioned to their surroundings vaguely. “I spent the summer with you. You’re meeting my mom and the rest of my family. We’ve talked about making time for each other and planned for our future and even discussed Clarke Juniors and Lexa Juniors.”

Lexa knew that everything Clarke said was true. They had made so many promises to each other, tried so hard to be together in whatever ways they could. The last couple of years hadn’t been easy, but they hadn’t just made it work--they had come out stronger because of it.

Still, one thought kept sticking in Lexa’s mind. “After you graduate, you could go anywhere, Clarke. You could advance your career. Are you sure that you want to come back to the ranch?”

But Clarke took both of Lexa’s hands in her own and held them so tightly that Lexa felt her fingers going a little numb. “I  want you to listen to me.” Clarke stared at her with intense blue eyes. “I want to be with you, Lexa. Physically. In the same location. And I know that means going to the ranch--”

Lexa opened her mouth to speak, but Clarke held a finger in front of her mouth.

“Which I love almost as much as I love you,” Clarke finished. “Living on the ranch isn’t a sacrifice for me. I love the cattle, I love Polis, I love Daenerys and Anya and Indra and all the other people I’ve met there. I can apply my skills on the ranch, and off of it too.” She gave Lexa a no-nonsense look. “So you better get ready for me to show up on your doorstep the day after I graduate with my car full of all my crap. Because it’s happening.”

Lexa didn’t know when she had started to cry, but she was. It didn’t make any sense to cry right now. Lexa was happy , damn it, so why were tears running down her cheeks and soaking into the pillow beneath her head? “I think I can handle that,” Lexa said as steadily as she could.

“Good, because you’re not getting rid of me.” Clarke kissed her again briefly. “I’m like a rash. You think I’m gone, and then bam, there I am again.”

Lexa laughed a little louder than she should have, but she couldn’t help it when Clarke was being the most intoxicating combination of sweet and funny. “I never want to get rid of you, Clarke.” She thought for a moment. “You’re a rash with no known cure.”

“No cure at all, known or unknown.” Clarke’s hands slid down her back, as she gave her a highly suggestive look. “Now come here. I’m going to marry you later, but for right now, I want to fuck your brains out. Gently.”

“Gently?” Lexa laughed again, their faces inches apart.

“So you don’t ruin your chances to get on my mom’s good side forever. She’s going to be your mother-in-law, you know.”

But Clarke’s wandering hand already had Lexa gasping on top of her. Clarke held a single finger in front of her mouth, shushing her. Lexa had to bite down on her own lip to stay quiet, but she did.

**********

Lexa sat at the table with Clarke and nursed her morning cup of coffee. She was more tired than she would like, but she absolutely did not regret staying up so late with Clarke the night before. Sunlight streamed in through the window, a stark contrast to the day before. She was about to ask Clarke if she was as groggy as she was when Clarke looked past her, frowning.

“Where are you off to?” Clarke asked her mom, who was putting on a thick coat. “You said you have today off.”

Abby put some gloves in her pockets and smiled at Lexa. “I was thinking Lexa and I could go for a walk this morning. It’s clear enough to see the mountains today.”

Lexa glanced over to Clarke, whose eyes were wide. But Lexa took it in stride and smiled back to Abby. “I would love to.”

After Abby left the room, Clarke leaned in close. “Are you sure? If it would be too weird, I can go with you, or--”

“I’ll be fine, Clarke.” Lexa rose from the couch, placing a soft peck on Clarke’s lips. “We’re just going to get to know each other better.”

“But in-laws are scary,” Clarke whispered, a little unnecessarily since Abby was still in the other room.

“Not for someone who wants to marry you as much as I do,” Lexa said.

Clarke only responded with an expression that was equal parts turned on and deliriously happy.

So Lexa let herself be whisked away, through traffic that was still ridiculous even though it was the morning of Christmas Eve. Abby brought them through a Starbucks drive-through first, before heading to a large lake surrounded by houses on all sides. It was cold and clear, but Lexa had come prepared with her Carhartt jacket and beanie. She held her coffee cup in one hand and stuffed the other into her pocket as she walked alongside Abby. The wooden walkway meandered along the lakeshore, and people in skin-tight workout clothes ran past them along the walkway, their breath appearing as puffs in the cold air.

“I hope you don’t mind me tearing you apart from Clarke for an hour,” Abby began, sending Lexa an apologetic look. “I know you don’t get to spend much time with her.”

There was something about her expressions and the lilt of her voice that reminded Lexa so much of Clarke. She loved seeing where Clarke had gotten some of her mannerisms and wished she had been able to meet Clarke’s father as well. Based on what Clarke had told her, Clarke was even more like her father.

“Neither do you,” Lexa said. “I know it’s hard for either of you to find the time to visit.”

Lexa had worn her hair loose out of her beanie, and now it was blowing around her face in the wind. She should have worn her usual braid… but she liked wearing her hair long when she was with Clarke. It made it easier for Clarke to run her hands through it.

“That’s true, now that she’s decided to live a thousand miles away.” Abby sighed, staring out over the water and taking a sip of her coffee. “It was easier when she was going to school here, even though between her studying and me working, we still didn’t see a lot of each other. But at least I got her for the holidays.”

“I think Clarke would see you more often if she could,” Lexa said. “But the life of a student isn’t a rich one.”

“That’s probably true. But mothers can never see too much of their children.” Abby glanced over to her. “I’m wondering how much I’ll see of her even after she graduates from school.”

Lexa took a sip of her coffee, even though it was too sweet for her liking. She shouldn’t have tried a latte after all. “You’ll have to ask Clarke,” she said simply. She really didn’t know what Clarke’s plans were concerning her visits home.

But Abby sighed, coming to a halt, and made her way to the railing of the wooden walkway. She rested her arms on the top of it as she watched Lexa. “I’m not sure if you know this, but you’re the first person that Clarke has ever brought home for the holidays.”

Lexa joined her at the railing and mimicked her pose. Sunlight reflected off the lake, almost too bright to look at without sunglasses. “I didn’t know that,” she admitted, the news and the significance taking a long time to sink in.

“I didn’t think you did. Clarke has dated a lot of people, but you’re the first one she’s been excited to have me meet,” Abby said with a strange look. But her expression softened, her brown eyes bright. “And I can see why.”

Lexa was at a loss for words. She looked out over the lake again, at the clear sky and the ducks floating along the water below them. “I’m excited to meet you too.” Lexa shifted her gaze back to Abby, releasing her breath slowly. “I wanted us to get to know each other before I asked Clarke to marry me.”

Abby didn’t say anything at first. She looked out over the lake, a confusion of emotions seeming to cross her face all at once. Lexa watched as her eyes filled with tears, but Abby turned back to her with the beginnings of a smile.

“You want to marry Clarke?” she asked, her voice thick.

“With all my heart,” Lexa responded firmly. “I’ve never met anyone like her before. She’s smart, daring, tenacious… She changed the entire way that I think about my ranch, just by being who she is.” Lexa felt her smile growing, just from talking about Clarke. She had that effect on her. “She’s funny. And compassionate. Did you know she named a cow, and that cow’s calf, just because she cared about them so much?”

“Dany and Drogon,” Abby said, nodding. “I’ve heard, and seen the photos. I think Clarke’s very proud of them.”

Lexa laughed. It felt so strange to be talking about her cattle with Clarke’s mom, especially in a huge city. It felt like her world, and Clarke’s world, were coming together. “Clarke brings joy into my life. And I believe I bring joy into hers. I couldn’t imagine anything better than spending the rest of my life with her.”

“Have you asked her to marry you yet?” Abby asked gently, placing a hand on Lexa’s arm.

“Not officially.” Lexa thought back to the night before, how Clarke had confirmed that she wanted to be with Lexa on the ranch. Her heart swelled just at the thought. “I want to wait to propose until the moment is right. But we’ve discussed our future together, and she says she’ll return to the ranch after she graduates.”

“In… Montana,” Abby said with some hesitation.

Lexa nodded. “The ranch is my life. I couldn’t leave it, and she knows that.”

Abby took another sip of her coffee and frowned slightly. “Did Clarke ever tell you how her father and I met?”

Lexa just shook her head.

“We met in undergrad,” Abby continued. “He was becoming an engineer, and I was in pre-med. He got an offer as soon as he graduated for an engineering firm in California.”

“Did he take it?” Lexa asked. She hadn’t heard any of this from Clarke.

“No.” Abby said with a bittersweet smile. “He chose to work here in Seattle, for a smaller company, making half of what he could have made. He said it was because he liked his advancement potential in this company better. But I knew he did it so he could be with me.”

Lexa swallowed thickly. All of Clarke’s potential (and lucrative) job opportunities after graduation flashed through her head. “Do you think Jake ever regretted his decision?”

“Not for a second.” Abby smiled at her again. “He loved his job, but from that day on, I knew he loved me more. We got married the following year, and I had Clarke three years after that. I saw how much he loved Clarke too. I don’t think he would have changed anything.” Abby sighed to herself. “Even after what happened.”

Lexa knew she was referring to the construction accident that took his life. “Thank you for telling me. I didn’t know what Jake sacrificed for you and Clarke.”

“I want what’s best for Clarke,” Abby went on, her smile sad once again. “For a long time, I thought that meant Clarke becoming a medical doctor like me.” She let out a shaky breath. “But now I’m beginning to think it looks a lot like a ranch in Montana..”

Lexa’s throat was suddenly dry. She took another sip of her (now very cold) latte. “You should visit us one day. When Clarke has moved back and is settled in,” Lexa said. “We can show you everything about how we run the ranch. And Clarke can even teach you how to ride a horse.”

Abby laughed, raising her eyebrows in surprise. “I still can’t believe my Clarke knows how to do that.” She turned from the railing and began walking them back toward the car. “I heard she learned how to line dance too.”

“She’s an enthusiastic dancer, but she could use a little more practice.” Lexa recalled how Clarke had bumbled through the movements as best she could during her going away party.

“And I’m sure she has an excellent teacher.” Abby bumped her shoulder into Lexa’s with a smile. “How long have you two been dating again?”

“About two years. Although it feels like longer,” Lexa added. Of course, it depended on what Abby considered dating. For Lexa, she considered that moment she had touched her lips to Clarke’s as dating, because she knew she would never want to kiss anyone else ever again.

Abby nodded. “Good for you. I only dated Jake for a year before he proposed. But we were young and foolish, no matter what our GPAs might have suggested.” She gave Lexa a tight smile. “I think waiting for the right moment is smart. You don’t need to rush into anything. You have the rest of your life ahead of you. But can you promise me something?”

Lexa stopped walking and turned toward her. She waited for Abby to continue, not wanting to commit to something before she heard what it was.

Abby pinned her with an intense look. “Promise me that you’ll take care of her. Not that she needs anyone to take care of her, of course--she can take care of herself. But…” Abby let out a sigh. “Just love her, alright? Even when it’s hard, even when she’s being stubborn. Even when she’s doing that thing where she ignores you while she’s trying to calm down.”

Lexa laughed, all too familiar with that part of Clarke. “I can do that,” she promised, meaning it with every fiber of her being.

Abby searched her eyes, seemingly satisfied with what she found there. “Good.” She continued their walk back to the car, Lexa at her side. “So I heard something interesting from Clarke that I was hoping you could shed some light on. She mentioned that you used to be in the rodeo?”

Lexa rolled her eyes, running a hand down her face, as Abby laughed at her reaction. She was quickly learning that she never should have shown those photos to Clarke (but now, being in Clarke’s childhood home, maybe she could  find some equally-embarrassing photos of Clarke).

**********

In the end, all Lexa had to do was ask. Although much of Clarke’s life had been captured on digital camera, her early years were ingrained in physical photos that rested in photo albums. Abby was more than willing to share them when they returned home.

When Abby pulled them down from the bookshelf, Clarke rose from her place on the couch, her mouth gaping open. “No…” she whispered as she looked at her mother in disbelief.

But Lexa took a seat beside her on the couch and spread the photo album out in front of herself. “But I thought you enjoyed looking at childhood photos, Clarke?”

Your childhood photos, obviously,” Clarke said, poking Lexa’s side with her fingers. “I haven’t looked at these in… I don’t even know how long.”

“Then what are you so afraid of?” Lexa said with a raised eyebrow. She flipped to the first page--which was wall-to-wall baby Clarke. She was an adorable, fat baby with the brightest blue eyes. Lexa glanced over to Clarke, catching her eye. “You were cute back then, too.”

“Flatterer,” Clarke whispered to her with the slightest beginnings of a smile.

But then Abby joined them on the couch and began a running narration as Lexa continued to flip through the album. A picture of tiny, vulnerable Clarke being held by Jake for the first time in the hospital. He looked down at her with a mixture of awe and fear and love. “He was so afraid of hurting her,” Abby said, smiling sadly down at the photo. “But he got the hang of it. And he changed far more diapers than I ever did.”

Baby Clarke in a stroller being taken to the zoo (passed out asleep by the elephant exhibit, but she had loved the monkeys when she was awake, Abby said). An older Clarke with her face, her hair, her bib and dress and seat covered in spaghetti sauce (“I think she was always trying to feed the furniture and her clothes too.”). Stern Clarke crawling (“She really was a serious baby,” Abby explained. “I had to act like an idiot to get her to smile.”). Toddler Clarke on Jake’s shoulders, hugging the top of his head with her little arms at the state fair (“She kept asking for cotton candy at every vendor we saw. We eventually caved in.”). Clarke pouting in front of a tent despite the incredible sunset behind her (Clarke finally chimed in--”I told Dad I hated camping, but he never believed me.”).

But finally, after flipping through most of the album, Lexa found what she was looking for. She slid the photo out of the album and rose swiftly from the couch, trying to take it all in. Clarke grasped uselessly at her arm, but Lexa tore away.

It was all too good: Clarke was maybe six years old, blond hair in a tight bun behind her head. She wore an intense look of concentration as she tried to balance on her toes… while wearing a pink tutu.

“Oh my God, Lexa, come here!” Clarke said as she lunged for the photo.

But unfortunately for Clarke, Lexa was quick and able to keep it just out of her reach. Finally, Lexa couldn’t help herself and burst out laughing. “Were you really a ballerina?” she struggled to say through her fits of laughter.

Abby watched them in amusement. “Only for a year. She didn’t do very well,” Abby explained, earning a glare from Clarke.

Clarke’s expression was truly priceless as she made another wild lunge for the photo. But Lexa’s arms were longer than hers. “Were you never going to tell me how good you look in a tutu?” Lexa asked her smugly.

But then Lexa felt herself being pushed up against the wall by the entire force of Clarke’s body, the air being forced out of her lungs all at once. Between that, and Clarke suddenly kissing her, Lexa excused herself for losing her focus for just a moment. But that’s all it took for Clarke to snatch the photograph from her fingers.

Clarke gave out a victorious cry as she ran off into another room. Lexa and Abby exchanged a confused look, before Clarke returned with empty hands. She stood in front of Lexa and stabbed an accusatory finger into her chest. “I didn’t have a choice,” she said, punctuating her words with another sharp poke. “I hated it, so I convinced my mom to let me try something else. And--Lexa, will you please stop laughing!”

Lexa did, after a struggle. She returned to the couch like a student who had just been caught pulling a prank by the principle. She glanced over to Clarke again, whose cheeks were still burning. “Did you just hide the photo?””

“Of course I did,” Clarke grumbled, pulling her knees to her chest. “Some things are better left in the past.”

Between Clarke’s petulance and the image of that pink tutu seared into Lexa’s mind, Lexa couldn’t help but place a kiss on Clarke’s temple. “I love you, Clarke.” But she couldn’t leave it at that, given how much Clarke had teased her about her rodeo photo. “No matter how dark your past may have been.”

Clarke’s pout finally turned into a begrudging smile. She pulled the photo album onto the couch and flipped to the next page. “Come on, let’s get this over with. We might as well skip right to the summer that I did karate.”

Lexa settled against her side and fell back into the rhythm of looking and laughing and teasing. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Abby smiling over at them.

**********

Lexa was already in bed. Although she had packed her usual tank top and sweatpants, she found that Abby kept the house warmer than the cabin at night, and she lounged under the sheets in just her tank top and underwear. Wearing so little in the winter was a luxury she wasn’t used to having. Of course, being able to share the bed with Clarke was really what kept Lexa warm at night.

She wondered what was taking Clarke so long to come to bed. She didn’t mean to feel impatient and desperate for her, but she did. She flipped the sheets off of herself and rose out of bed. But when she heard voices on the other side of it, she stopped short.

“Did you… have a good walk with Lexa this morning?” Clarke asked. Her voice was muffled through the door but still clear enough for Lexa to understand perfectly. She remained where she stood, listening intently.

“We had a lovely time. She seems like a very grounded and capable woman,” Abby said on the other side of the door.

“That’s an understatement,” Clarke said. “But it was a little surprising that you asked her to do that, just the two of you.”

“Why?” Abby asked. “Don’t I get to spend time with my future daughter-in-law?”

There was silence for a long moment. Lexa controlled her sudden urge to fidget or burst through the door. She told herself she should go lay down again and pretend like this conversation didn’t mean everything to her, but she couldn’t make herself do it.

“What do you think about that?” Clarke asked so quietly that Lexa had to strain to hear her. “Me maybe marrying Lexa, I mean?”

Lexa’s ear was practically on the door now.

“‘Maybe,’” Abby repeated, scoffing. “I know I haven’t been very involved in your life these past few years, Clarke, but I can see how much you love each other. There’s not a whole lot of ‘maybe’ about it, from what I can tell.”

“So what do you think?” There was a sense of urgency to Clarke’s voice now.

Another pause, before Abby spoke more softly. “From what I’ve seen of Lexa, I think you have found an incredible woman. Does she make you happy, Clarke?”

“Happier than I ever thought I could be,” Clarke said immediately. Confidently. Lexa’s heart swelled.

“That’s what’s most important.” Abby paused for a long moment that had Lexa on edge. “I wish you guys were living next door, but I understand that you need to make your own path. I’ve tried to control you for too long. And, I know I don’t say this enough, but I’m proud of you. For getting your doctorate, and for Lexa.”

“Thanks, mom. That means a lot to me.” Another pause. “And I’m sorry that I’ve been distant. I felt like I needed space to make my own decisions.”

“I would like to hear from you more often,” Abby said. “But I think this visit is a very good start. I’m glad you wanted to introduce me to Lexa.”

Clarke’s voice was almost too quiet for Lexa to hear. “I really love her, Mom.”

Lexa could hear the smile in Abby’s voice. “I know you do, sweetie. So why don’t you go spend some time with her? We can talk again in the morning. 9 AM for breakfast tomorrow?”

“I love you, Mom.”

“Love you too, Clarke.”

Lexa practically bolted back to bed and rested her head on the pillow just in time for the door to crack open. Clarke poked her head through the door, smiling at her.

“Asleep already, lover?”

“No.” Lexa tried to set aside the excitement she felt after eavesdropping on their conversation. Letting out a sleepy groan (which she thought sounded very authentic), she patted the bed beside her. “I’m afraid to fall asleep. I think I might dream of you in a tutu.”

Lexa suddenly found a pillow being thrown at her face, followed immediately by Clarke straddling her and pinning her arms above her head. Lexa didn’t even see her cross the room, it had all happened so fast.

“I propose a truce,” Clarke said, pressing her body down on top of hers. Lexa tried her best to focus on what Clarke was saying rather than the sudden heat between her legs. “I won’t mention a certain rodeo clown picture, and you won’t mention tutus.”

“And if I refuse?” Lexa asked despite her very compromising position beneath Clarke. Still, she couldn’t help it as her body flexed up into Clarke’s.

“It’ll be a childhood photo arms race,” Clarke warned in a serious tone. “We’ll both try to out-embarrass the other. Facebook may become involved. It can only end in total annihilation.”

Lexa pretended to give it some thought. “Then I suppose I really have no choice. I agree to the truce.”

“You’re a wise woman,” Clarke said as she leaned down to kiss her.

“But you really hid the picture?” Lexa asked, her lips brushing against Clarke’s.

“Somewhere you will never find.”

Lexa could only vaguely register how silly that was, as Clarke was quickly giving her other much more pressing matters to think about.

**********

There was no better way to wake up than to Clarke kissing her.

“Merry Christmas, Lexa.”

Lexa opened her eyes, and Clarke laying on the bed beside her, propped up on her elbow, blue eyes dancing, blankets falling down to expose her bare chest, came into focus. Lexa still couldn’t believe that she was lucky enough to wake up beside her whenever they were together.

“Merry Christmas, Clarke,” Lexa managed to mumble, even as she burrowed her head deeper into her pillow. But then Clarke was kissing her again, and the urge to fall back asleep was at least temporarily forgotten.

Resting her head back onto her pillow, Lexa took in the sight of Clarke again and slid her hand down to the dip of Clarke’s waist. “I like this Christmas morning a lot better than last year, or the year before that,” Lexa said, rubbing her thumb along the smooth skin of Clarke’s stomach.

“Me too.” Clarke was playing with her hair, which as always was a disaster when she first woke up. But her fingers paused as she shot Lexa a lopsided grin. “Mostly because I had to go into the lab last Christmas, and the year before I was freezing cold because you hogged all of the space heaters in your room.”

Lexa pinched her side, drawing out a squeak. “My room was colder. It got most of the wind. I needed those space heaters.”

“You didn’t once I started sleeping with you again,” Clarke said in a sultry voice that Lexa tried, unsuccessfully, to resist the charm of. She leaned forward and gave Lexa a slow kiss, her tongue running along her lip and slipping inside her mouth. It made Lexa felt like she was floating away, maybe back into her dreams from the night before.

When the contact between them broke, Lexa could only open her eyes again groggily. It felt like coming awake a second time.

Clarke ran her hand through Lexa’s hair again away from her face. “You’re really beautiful in the morning, you know that?”

But Lexa was being lulled back to sleep. She burrowed her head against Clarke’s chest and tried to respond, her lips brushing against Clarke’s skin. But Clarke just laughed and curled her arms around Lexa’s shoulders. Maybe Lexa’s words had been more mumbled than spoken, but she was forgetting what she was even going to say. The comfort of Clarke’s arms was too strong.

“We’re going to have breakfast in half an hour,” Clarke said as she held her. “Want to go back to sleep?”

All Lexa could manage was a huff of breath against her skin.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” Clarke said, laughing, as she kissed the top of her head.

With warm arms and Clarke’s scent enveloping her, Lexa was asleep again in less than a minute.

**********

They got cleaned up, and Lexa did her best to tame her hair (sex with Clarke the night before had not helped), and they emerged from their room as casually as Lexa knew how. She couldn’t decide if Abby’s “Merry Christmas” that morning was completely innocent or if Abby knew that Lexa had made her daughter come twice last night.

Regardless, the day was full of Griffin family traditions that Lexa had been introduced to two years before. Abby and Clarke made cinnamon rolls while Christmas music blared on the radio and Lexa sat at the kitchen counter giving emotional support and advice (and sometimes getting dough flung at her in return). She and Clarke had agreed to forego gifts that year, or rather, Lexa had told Clarke that seeing her again for Christmas was all the present she would need (“You’re such a nerd sometimes,” Clarke said. “I love it.”) But while the cinnamon rolls were in the oven, Clarke snooped around the Christmas tree and found two boxes from Abby for them. Lexa’s was a new flannel (“I may have told Mom that you pretty much live in flannel for three quarters of the year,” Clarke explained), and Clarke received a bundle of $20 bills. When she looked at her mother skeptically, Abby held up her hands in exasperation. “I have to motivate you to visit me more often somehow!”  

After breakfast, Lexa noticed that Abby had started on a glass of wine. “Mind if I join you?” Lexa asked, earning a strange smile from Abby.

“You don’t seem like a wine type of girl,” Abby said, even as she pulled another two glasses out from the cabinet.

“I’m not.” Lexa poured herself a small amount of wine. “But I’m also not one to break Griffin traditions.”

Clarke came up to her side and grabbed the other glass from the counter. “Hey mom, remember that time I got into your wine and was passed out in the corner for like half of Christmas?”

Abby took the bottle of wine before Clarke could reach it and moved it across the counter from her. “Yes I do. And I remember checking on you every five minutes to make sure you didn’t have alcohol poisoning.”

But Clarke just put her hand on Lexa’s shoulder for leverage and lunged across the counter for the wine bottle. She poured herself a glass with a smirk on her face. “And then you learned how to hide your wine better. It was really fortunate that I took one for the team that year. I helped keep the children safe from your alcohol every Christmas after that.” She clinked her glass against Lexa’s and took a big swig. She lowered her voice, but not so low that Abby couldn’t hear her. “Except for my sophomore year in high school.”

“What was that?” Abby asked sharply.

Clarke smiled over at Lexa like she was in on a big secret. She kept pretending to whisper. “My dad went to the liquor store to buy my mom enough wine to get her through a day full of our family coming over…” Clarke’s smile grew. “But he got enough for the kiddy table too.”

“Are you serious, Clarke?” Abby was clearly in shock. “I had no idea.”

Clarke looked back to her mom and crossed her arms smugly. “That’s because Dad taught us responsible drinking techniques. One serving of wine an hour. Although I think his servings were pretty big,” Clarke said, tapping her chin thoughtfully.

“How did I not notice a bunch of drunk teenagers in my own home?” Abby asked, still amazed.

Clarke took another sip of her wine. “Honestly, I just don’t think there’s that much difference between our family sober or our family drunk. We’re still going to get in arguments and come out the other end loving each other, somehow, no matter how much booze is involved.”

Abby shook her head, drinking more of her wine. She looked at Lexa, as she gestured over to Clarke. “You getting all this, Lexa? You’ll have to keep a close eye on her.”

“I will.” Lexa looked over to Clarke, letting her gaze drop to Clarke’s lips, and smiled. “I promise.”

“You are such a sap!” Clarke groaned, shoving against her shoulder.

But Lexa saw the fire in her eyes. If Abby hadn’t been there, she was positive that Clarke would be kissing her. As nice as it was to meet Abby (and the rest of Clarke’s family soon enough), Lexa ached to have Clarke all to herself.

**********

Christmas dinner with the whole family was even more chaotic than Lexa had imagined. She didn’t know how it happened, but with each new arrival to the house, the volume of every conversation seemed to increase ten-fold. By the time everyone arrived, Lexa was having a hard time focusing on anything with the clamor around her. But everyone, as far as she could tell, was having fun. Cousins who hadn’t seen each other in at least a year, Clarke’s aunt and uncle who had driven in for the day, and of course Clarke, linking her arm in Lexa’s and introducing her to everyone in turn.

It was a whirlwind, but a happy one. Lexa thought her cheeks hurt from having to smile so much, but the conversation, the food (it was somehow even better than Clarke had described), and--most importantly--seeing how thrilled Clarke was to be with her family again made it all worthwhile.

By the end of it, with the last guest yelling goodbye from the front door, Lexa thought she might be ready to never speak another word in her life ever again. She collapsed onto the couch beside Clarke and nuzzled into her shoulder. Clarke seemed to understand and wrapped her arm around her, holding her close.

“Merry Christmas, Lexa,” Clarke said, as she kissed the top of her head. “What do you say to a nice Christmas movie to help us wind down a bit?”

Lexa just grunted into her shoulder, eliciting a laugh from Clarke. But Lexa really couldn’t manage much more than that.

When Clarke started It’s a Wonderful Life, Lexa was grateful. She got more comfortable on the couch, which meant getting closer to Clarke, and Lexa was very blessed to find that Clarke would be running her hand through Lexa’s hair for most of the movie. There was nothing more soothing.

Lexa awoke in a start and found herself lying practically on top of Clarke on the couch, a blanket draped over the two of them, the room dark. She didn’t know at what point they had fallen asleep during the movie. She shifted against Clarke and earned a sleepy groan.

Lexa wasn’t thrilled about leaving the security of their blanket either, but she knew she wouldn’t sleep well if she stayed there. She got to her feet and looked down at Clarke, still sleeping, her hair splayed out on the arm of the couch, looking more beautiful than ever. She considered leaving her there undisturbed, but there was no way she would spend a single night of their time together without her.

She scooped Clarke gently up off of the couch. Clarke’s only response was angling her head toward her and sighing, which made Lexa’s heart melt just a little bit more. She slowly made her way to their bedroom and placed her softly onto the bed. Clarke’s eyes never opened once.

But now, Clarke sleeping beside her, her soft breathing the only sound in the room, Lexa found that she couldn’t sleep at all. She re-learned the slope of Clarke’s forehead, the curve of her nose, the pout of her lips. She tucked away the stories that Clarke’s family had told her earlier that day, cherished how Abby had talked with her so frankly, adored how Clarke had stolen glances with her throughout the day and made her feel so loved.

With Clarke breathing heavily beside her, Lexa dozed off that night with only one thought in her mind: how incredible it would be to call Clarke her wife.

Chapter Text

Clarke was in crisis mode all the time. One week, it would be her classes running her into the ground with projects and exams and endless amounts of information she needed to jam into her head. The next week, she would be working late at the animal hospital. Then there was trying to keep in touch with Raven, and her mom, and God forbid Clarke ever wanted to hang out with friends or just relax for once.

And of course there was Lexa. Clarke texted her, and called her, and Skyped her, but none of it was enough. None of it could replace the rough callouses of Lexa’s hands sliding over her skin; or Lexa’s soft laughter in her ear that would make the fine hairs at the back of Clarke’s head dance; or the hunger in Lexa’s eyes when Clarke would tease her by slowly undressing her, button by button.

Sometimes, when Clarke was tired enough, she could swear she heard Lexa’s sleepy sigh in the bed beside her or feel the tracing of Lexa’s fingers against her arm. More often, Clarke dreamed of her and the ranch, the scent of sage filling her nose and Lexa’s flanneled form rocking in the saddle beside her. When Clarke awoke, another long day of classes and studying and projects ahead of her, she could only sigh in disappointment.

Even so, Lexa had a way of jutting into Clarke’s life, like a curtain being turned aside to let sunshine into a dark room. Lexa’s good morning messages never failed to put Clarke in, maybe not a good mood, but at least a better one. Even just seeing Lexa’s face on her laptop screen made Clarke breathe easier. And Lexa, for better or for worse, had discovered Snapchat.

Not surprisingly, Lexa’s snaps were always a bit unconventional. For the most part, Lexa sent mundane snaps of life around the ranch: what she was eating for dinner (that usually resulted in Clarke scolding her for eating a sandwich again ), a view of the sun setting behind the hills, or even a pile of horse manure that, according to Lexa’s note, looked like the constellation Cassiopeia. Lexa only occasionally sent selfies, which were usually serious photos with a silly filter. And Clarke didn’t know why, but her favorite filter was the one that gave Lexa smoky makeup all around her eyes.

Given Lexa’s previous snap history, Clarke was completely unprepared for the one that Lexa sent her in class.

It was one of Clarke’s 8 AM classes, which she not-so-secretly detested. It was one thing to wake up so early to ride across a grassland and quite another to sit in a room with terrible fluorescent lighting that made her skin look like she was dead. She was already on her second coffee of the day (she was averaging four a day now) but still struggling to stay awake. The notification on her phone was a welcome distraction to help her keep her eyes open at least. She unlocked her phone on the desk, fully expecting a picture of another sunrise, or maybe Lexa in that flower crown filter.

What she was not prepared for was Lexa, long hair loose and hanging over both shoulders--very bare shoulders, attached to a very bare chest, which was concealed by only a very strategically placed arm.

Clarke sat bolt upright in her seat, startling her friends Harper and Bellamy sitting on either side of her. She snatched the phone in both hands and angled it towards herself against Harper’s curious eyes. Somewhat reluctantly, Clarke tapped the screen, and the image of Lexa’s chest, and her self-satisfied smile, and her bicep that bulged as she covered herself, disappeared.

Harper still craned her neck to see the phone screen, and Clarke kicked her under the desk, a little louder than she had intended. Their professor--just a few feet away in the small classroom--gave her a quizzical look before continuing on about… something. Clarke realized she hadn’t been paying attention for a few minutes now. She spared a glance over to Bellamy’s notebook, which was already full of notes. Shit.

Ignoring Harper’s attempt to catch her attention, Clarke placed her phone onto her thigh and tried to refocus on the lecture. She could ask Bellamy to borrow his notes (even if he was going to be a complete pain in the ass when he found out why Clarke hadn’t taken notes for the first ten minutes of class).

But the phone vibrated against her leg, and Clarke knew she shouldn’t look. She knew she should just turn the phone on silent and ignore it.

But Clarke missed her, dammit. She hadn’t seen Lexa in months, and Clarke’s impulse control had never been very good to begin with….

For that split second after Clarke opened the snap and before she stuffed her phone into her bookbag, Clarke was just proud that she didn’t yell or squeak or moan or make any other incriminating noise. She knew Harper was staring at her bright red cheeks, but Clarke just hoped that Harper couldn’t tell how Clarke’s heart was beating fast enough to try to force itself out of her chest.

(Clarke thought that opening the snap would let her focus on the rest of the lecture, but she was wrong. She couldn’t forget about Lexa’s legs spread wide, her hand spread over herself, her eyes piercing into the camera…)

Clarke ran to the bathroom as soon as class ended, Harper laughing at her hysterically and Bellamy staring after her like she were crazy. Despite far-from-ideal lighting in the bathroom stall, Clarke sent what she thought was a perfect response, all cleavage and dragging her bottom lip with her finger. She waited for Lexa’s response… and waited… but finally decided that Lexa must have been outside of wifi range. As disappointed as Clarke was, she understood that Lexa didn’t have the privilege of being able to lay around and look unbelievably sexy all day just for Clarke’s sake. Too bad that meant Clarke had to attend the rest of her classes that day and her practicum that night pretending that she wasn’t aching for her and imagining the next time they would be together.

Even though she and Lexa weren’t scheduled to Skype again for another few days, Clarke convinced her--very easily--that they should “discuss” what had happened that day. One orgasm and a semi-serious scolding later, Clarke knew that Lexa would refrain from sending her any more nudes during class, if only for the sake of Clarke passing her classes.

Clarke held onto the prospect of being with Lexa with a vice-like grip. All she had to do was make it through first semester to spend a few precious days with Lexa over Christmas. Then, there were only a few months of second semester to endure before getting to spend an entire summer with Lexa. Clarke tried to break down the year into smaller, more manageable increments, because if she didn’t, she didn’t know if she could make it.

(Except she did know. She was going to make it. Clarke had dreamed about becoming a veterinarian for too long, fought for it too hard, put herself and Lexa through too much, to not become a doctor. She had to make it, for the both of them.)

**********

One miserably cold and snowy day, Clarke was on the verge of a complete burnout. She was surrounded at the table by Harper, Bellamy, her phone, laptop, books, several empty coffee cups, the remains of her fast food dinner, and a certain stench that Clarke suspected, unfortunately, was the consequence of not knowing the last time she had showered. She knew she was a mess, but there was nothing to do except struggle on.

Or she should have struggled on, despite her phone buzzing on the table. But despite the mountains of knowledge Clarke needed to learn, she desperately wanted just a few moments of procrastination. Needed a few moments.

Clark picked up the phone, ignoring Harper’s annoyed look at Clarke breaking her concentration. But Clarke’s attention was already diverted to the text message. It was from Anya.

Anya: Don’t freak out

If there was any message to make Clarke freak out, that was it. But she didn’t have time to send a frantic replay before another message arrived.

Anya: I’m engaged

Clarke burst to her feet. “Are you fucking serious?!” she said far too loudly for the study area, or any public space, really.

Clarke suddenly realized that dozens of pairs of eyes were suddenly fixed on her every movement. She gave a little wave. “Sorry,” she whispered to everyone in the room, before sitting back down and slouching in her chair. She took her phone in both hands and typed out a hasty reply.

Clarke: ENGAGED!!!!!!!!1????????????!!!!!!?/ EXPLAIN :D ;D

She only had to wait a few seconds for a reply.

Anya: Wow you must be really busy in school to reply immediately like that

Anya: What is there to explain? Gustus proposed, I said yes. It’s very simple.

Anya : Look on facebook for details about wedding etc

Clarke brought up Anya’s profile on Facebook, and sure enough, there was a photo of Anya. And Gustus. Together. Looking stupidly happy. Anya was smirking and showing off a shiny ring on her finger.

Holy. Shit.

“What the hell’s going on with you?” Across the table, Harper was staring at her in a mixture of concern and irritation.

“My friend’s getting married,” Clarke said in amazement, still staring at Anya’s genuine smile and how Gustus looked at her like she was everything to him. “The bitch,” she added under her breath.

Harper seemed to snap out of her intense study mood and put her pencil down. She must have been just as desperate for an excuse to procrastinate as Clarke. “You sound jealous, but I don’t know why. Aren’t you practically engaged yourself? To that cowgirl or whoever that visited here a while back?”

Her other friend at the table, Bellamy, shook his head beside her without even looking up from his notes. “Look who’s still bitter that she didn’t get to meet your girlfriend.”

“I’m curious, OK? I’ve never met a cowgirl before,” Harper replied testily. “And Clarke talks her up so much all the time, it would be nice to put a face to her future wife.”

Clarke shushed them, gesturing for their mouths to shut with her hand. “Number one, Lexa and I are not engaged. Number two, she’s a ranch owner, not a cowgirl. And number three, you should all get back to studying for that huge exam we’re probably going to fail tomorrow.

“Look at this, Harper” Bellamy said, leaning over to look at Clarke’s laptop screen. He let out a low whistle. “Is she in Montana too? Because she’s hot.”

Clarke slapped his arm. “And engaged. Keep it in your pants.”

“Ow!”  Bellamy rubbed his arm where Clarke had hit him. “I’m just saying, he’s a lucky guy. Congrats.”

“Damn right he is, Anya is amazing.” Clarke read through the post more carefully. They were getting married the following summer, while Clarke would be there. (Which would only make an incredible summer back with Lexa even better. Where would they have it? How much of Polis would be in attendance? What kind of wedding would Anya have, anyway? It was almost impossible to imagine her in a white wedding dress.)

Harper leaned over to be able to see Clarke’s screen. “Oh yeah, she’s pretty. They must have some good stock up there.”

“Good stock ?” Clarke repeated, hardly able to believe her ears.

“Oh my God.” Harper rubbed at her eyes and hit her head against the table with a thud. “I’ve been studying theriogenology for way too long. I think I need to take a break.”

“Me too,” Clarke said quickly. “I’ll meet you back here in a few?”

Harper nodded, already on her way to the coffee shop downstairs, while Bellamy just grunted and returned to writing frantically in his notebook.

Turning toward the stairwell, Clarke dialed Lexa’s number and hoped it was late enough for Lexa to be home.

Lexa picked up after the second ring. “Hello?”

“Hey, lover,” Clarke said, smiling into her phone, some of the tension in her shoulders dissipating immediately. She sat down on the stairs and watched the snow fall outside the window. This was a day when she was desperately glad to be inside rather than out on horseback with the cattle.

“Clarke.” Lexa’s voice almost sounded relieved. “It’s been a few days.”

“Yeah, I’m sorry. School has been crazy over here. Three exams in three days. My blood has mostly turned into coffee by now.”

“I’m no doctor, but that sounds unhealthy,” Lexa said with a hint of humor.

“I can sleep after graduation.” Clarke let out a yawn that she thought really proved her point. “But I called you for a reason, other than to hear your beautiful voice and tell you how tired I am.”

“What is it? Although my voice is very flattered.”

“I’ll give you a hint,” Clarke said, crunching up her body on the stair to let someone pass. “It has something to do with your newly-engaged, totally about to marry Gustus childhood friend.”

“I know!” Clarke could practically hear Lexa’s grin coming through the phone. “She told me a few hours ago.”

“A few hours ago? That’s some best friend privilege right there. She only told me ten minutes ago.”

“She’s been busy,” Lexa explained. “They decided to get married this summer, which doesn’t leave a lot of time to plan the details.”

Clarke leaned forward excitedly onto her knees. “Are you going to be in the wedding?”

Lexa sighed into the phone. “Indra and I will both be bridesmaids. Anya said it was to avoid a battle to the death for the privilege of maid of honor.”

Clarke almost squealed but couldn’t help stomping her feet a little onto the stairs. “She’s going to make you wear an ugly dress! I hope it’s purple. Or magenta! Or, oh my God, chartreuse.”

Lexa snorted a little into the phone. “You know I don’t know what color chartreuse is.”

“I don’t either, but I know it’s bad.” Clarke squinted as she tried to imagine Lexa in a dress. It was… confusing. “Wait, do you even wear dresses? We’ve never done anything fancy that needed one.”

“Yes, I wear dresses, Clarke. Or at least I have. A few times.”

Clarke squinted her eyes thoughtfully. “How many times is a few times.”

Lexa hummed into the phone. “I know I had some dresses as an infant, but those don’t really count. I wore one to my middle school graduation, because my mom asked me to. And…” Lexa paused for a long moment. “For my parent’s funeral.”

Clarke’s smile slipped. She didn’t think Lexa would ever truly get over her parent’s deaths, but it was something that Clarke loved about her. Lexa loved deeply, loved fully, loved tenaciously. She wasn’t one to let go.

(Clarke’s heart fluttered, knowing that Lexa’s tenacious love was now focused on her.)

“It doesn’t matter what I wear to the wedding,” Lexa concluded. “But I’m glad that Anya wants me to be there. I think she’ll be happy with Gustus, and I want to be there to celebrate with them. And I’ll get to see you dressed up as well.”

“That’s what you think,” Clarke said with attitude. “I’m not a bridesmaid. I could show up in sweatpants if I wanted to.”

“You could ,” Lexa admitted. “But I’ve been thinking… a dress with thin straps would look nice. Something to show off your shoulders. And maybe a dress with a dipping neckline in front…”

“Also to show off my shoulders, obviously” Clarke added. “You’ve really thought about this, haven’t you?”

“Just a little. But I haven’t decided what color yet.” Lexa paused for a moment. “Blue.”

“That didn’t take long,” Clarke said, laughing.

“It’s your eyes, Clarke. You look beautiful in blue.”

Clarke loved Lexa’s earnestness, her candor. She rested her head against the wall and sighed, missing Lexa even more. “I think you’d look good in a suit,” she said, “especially if you think you’d be more comfortable in it than a dress.”

“Of course I’d be more comfortable in a suit,” Lexa said. “The suit has pants. And pockets. And I wouldn’t have to wear heels.”

Clarke was being struck by a very vivid, very attractive image of Lexa in a suit. She really should have thought of it sooner. “It should be tailored. And include a vest, please. A tie too, that I can grab and drag you closer by…”

“Clarke, it’s for a wedding,” Lexa choked, clearly scandalized.

Maybe it was Clarke’s marathon studying sessions of the last few days. Or maybe Lexa’s shock at how Clarke could make anything at least a little dirty with minimum effort really was hilarious. Whatever the reason, Clarke burst out laughing and found that she couldn’t stop.

And to Clarke’s surprise, Lexa’s laughter rang out over the phone as well, even though she was pretty sure that Lexa didn’t know why she was laughing so much (because Clarke didn’t know either). All she knew was that Lexa’s laugh was one of her favorite sounds.

When Clarke finally got control of herself, she had to wipe a tear from her eye. “God, I miss you so fucking much.”

“We can do this,” Lexa said seriously. “It’s only a few more months before the summer. But… I really can’t wait to go to a wedding with you, Clarke.”

Clarke knew exactly what she was talking about, and it wasn’t Anya’s wedding. She smiled so big that her cheeks hurt.

**********

Somehow, Clarke made it through the remainder of her semester without pulling (all of) her hair out. She made the drive up to Montana much faster than she should have, because that’s where her home was. Where her heart was. She couldn’t wait to get there, and she refused to think about how she would be leaving again in just a few months. For now, she just pressed down a little harder on the accelerator and let the wide-open roads lead her back to Lexa.

Just like she had done the year before, Clarke settled back into her role on the ranch as if she were putting on her favorite pair of sweatpants. Warm, familiar, fit her perfectly. It had been a drier than average winter, which left less snow to melt and less spring grass growth, but Lexa was prepared. She had made agreements with local landowners over the winter to purchase additional hay, which would be able to hold the herd over until thunderstorms brought the rain which the grasslands, and the cattle, needed to grow.

Clarke had known Drogon would be gone, but she still missed Daenerys’ boisterous young calf of last year. She knew that the ranch couldn’t keep him, but the sentimental part of her still wished she could have seen him grow up at least. But Daenerys had a new calf now--another boy, which Clarke named Rhaegal--who was actually a little cuter than Drogon if not quite as playful.

So Clarke settled back in. She still may not have known the rolling hills of grass and sage quite as well as Lexa did, but she always recognized where she was now. She could point her way north, knew the ranch boundaries and the fences that delineated different pastures, could find her way back home to the cabin without a doubt in her mind. She remembered how disorienting the ranch had felt, all those years ago, when she had set out on horseback onto the seemingly endless range, surrounded by grass that seemed to extend forever in every direction. She had felt so insignificant then, as if she could be swallowed up whole by the ranch and no one would even be the wiser. But now she belonged. She was a part of it.

She blamed it all on Lexa--beautiful, dry-humored, sappy, intelligent Lexa. Clarke never would have found her calling on the ranch if not for her. She might be stuck in a city treating high blood pressure in cats instead of feeling empowered by the strength of the sun by day and the whisper of the stars by night. There was truly no comparison, but Clarke wouldn’t have experienced any of it without Lexa.

Amidst the cattle health check-ups (which Clarke felt more confident than ever performing), picking up hay bales for supplemental feed (which showed off Lexa’s biceps better than ever), and long days in the sun crossing the ranch from one end to the other and back again, Clarke had the absolute pleasure of being able to touch Lexa whenever she liked, come up behind her in the fields and kiss the back of her neck, and spend their evenings together reminding Lexa how much she had missed her.

And just as Clarke felt more confident than ever about her role on the ranch, Lexa’s confidence had grown in other areas as well.

Clarke was sitting in bed, her muscles exhausted and still building themselves back up again after her school year in academia and sudden transition to life back in the saddle. She had her book open in her hands, but Lexa was changing into her pajamas on the other side of the bedroom, and frankly, Clarke was distracted. She had been on the same page for a few minutes now, but it wasn’t really her fault. Lexa seemed to be taking her sweet ass time just to change her clothes. Clarke tried to refocus on her book, even if she had to read the same sentence five times with Lexa still in her peripheral vision.

Finally changed, Lexa returned to the bed. Clarke could feel Lexa’s eyes on her, roaming over her. Maybe it was because Clarke had decided to wear her skimpiest pair of shorts to bed that night, but why not? It was hot outside, and hot in the cabin, and combined with how she and Lexa tended to sleep right next to each other, it could feel like a furnace in their bed. It had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that these shorts showed off her legs.

So when Lexa ran her hand down Clarke’s arm and began leaving a trail of kisses along her bare shoulder, Clarke wasn’t exactly surprised. Or bothered, for that matter.  She took her eyes fully off her book for just a second, but that’s all it took.

Lexa’s hair was loose, still crimped from being in a braid all day, and fell over her shoulders. She very clearly wasn’t wearing anything beneath her tanktop. Nipples and abdominal muscles pushed against the thin fabric as she leaned against Clarke. Legs were on full display in a revealing pair of shorts, quads flexing as she moved against her. But of course it was her arms that did Clarke in completely. Just the tiny movement of Lexa running her hand down Clarke’s arm put her muscular forearms on display. It wasn’t fair, having arms like that. How was Clarke supposed to read or do anything but gawk when Lexa was showing them off?

Lexa’s mouth had made it to Clarke’s neck, and she wasn’t being shy. Her teeth grazed against her skin, followed by her swirling tongue. She lingered on one place, then moved on to the next, nipping and sucking there as well. Clarke knew she was easy to turn on, but… fuck.

Still, Clarke tried to control her quickening breathing. “Need something, Lexa?” she asked as nonchalantly as possible, still with her book in her hand, even though she just tempted to turn and see what else Lexa’s mouth could do.  

Lexa paused her ministrations against her neck but remained close. Her hand lifted from Clarke’s arm, placed the bookmark on Clarke’s current page, and set the book onto the bedside table, all without a word, before she threw her leg on the other side of Clarke’s body to straddle her.

Clarke swallowed hard at Lexa towering over her like that. The hard glint in Lexa’s eyes was framed by her somewhat wild hair falling down over either shoulder. Clarke fought to find her voice. “I was reading that, you know,” she lied.

Lexa cocked her head to the side in a way that Clarke would find infuriating if it didn’t also turn her on so much. Rolling her hips down into her, Lexa leaned down and rested her arms on Clarke’s shoulders. “Were you? You were on the same page for the last fifteen minutes.”

“Ten minutes,” Clarke breathed, feeling herself magnetically drawn upwards to Lexa’s lips. “I’m a slow reader.”

“Says the veterinary school student,” Lexa teased as she closed the gap between them a little more.

“Seriously, I am.” Clarke fought for just a few more seconds of self control. “It just means I have to work harder than everyone else.”

“Hmm.” Lexa backed away slightly and looked her steadily in the eye. “Does that mean you want to get back to reading?”

“Not even a little bit.” She took hold of Lexa’ hips and tugged her in. She saw Lexa’s lips curl into a smile before they came together with her own.

Lexa didn’t ease into it. She ran her tongue into Clarke’s mouth and found all of its corners, bit Clarke’s lower lip and pulled at it until Clarke gasped against her.

“I feel like you’re a woman on a mission,” Clarke said when Lexa pulled back just enough to stare at her with dark eyes.

“I’ve been wanting to do this all day,” Lexa confessed, running her hands underneath Clarke’s shirt and up over her breasts. She squeezed, not gently, making Clarke gasp again. Lexa was like this, could oscillate between being the gentlest lover in the world and fucking Clarke until she forgot where she was. A lot of that confidence had come out in the last couple of years… much to Clarke’s pleasure.

“I want to fuck you, Clarke,” Lexa continued, licking her lips. It sent a pulse straight through Clarke. “With the strap-on.”

“Really?” Clarke drawled. Heat was already pooling inside of her, but she did her best to look  at Lexa with amusement. “We’ve been doing that a lot lately. I’m beginning to think you like it.”

“I think you’re rather partial to it as well.” Lexa raised an eyebrow, smirking. “Or were your three consecutive orgasms last time just a show?”

Clarke just grinned at her. “Go put it on.” Lexa was off of her in less than a second, off the bed and rummaging through the nightstand. “And take all of that off while you’re at it,” she said, motioning broadly at all of Lexa’s clothing.

It didn’t take her long. Lexa had gotten quite good with the harness, and she was strapped in and suited up in less than a minute. But Lexa frowned when she looked back over to Clarke. She had been so caught up in getting herself ready that she hadn’t seemed to notice that Clarke hadn’t bothered to take any of her clothes off.

But Clarke knew what she was doing. She got off the bed and stood in front of her, Lexa’s stare boring into her. “I want you to stay right there.”

Lexa’s frown remained in place, but she didn’t question it. Realization seemed to dawn over her, as Clarke slowly dropped to her knees in front of her. Her mouth gaped open, and Clarke could see how her chest heaved. Lexa was rarely as calm as she appeared.

Clarke didn’t look away from her, as she gave the dildo one long lick, from the tip to the base. Lexa’s eyes widened, and she let out a ragged breath. Clarke knew what it was like to get a blowjob while wearing a strap-on. She knew the kind of power trip it was, even if Lexa couldn’t feel it as was if it were her own flesh. But Lexa had also told her that she had learned to adjust the harness in such a way that with every bit of pressure that she exerted with the strap-on, she could feel it pushing against her clit. And that’s what Clarke wanted to work with.

She took the strap-on in one hand and ran her hand along the length of it, pushing it back into the harness. Lexa took in a breath sharply above her and kept watching her with darkening eyes. So Clarke pushed her hand down along it again, with just a little more pressure, as she placed her mouth over the tip.

Lexa’s hands were on her in an instant, as if outside of her own volition, holding her bare shoulders with her calloused hands. Clarke enjoyed the roughness of her skin against her and how Lexa’s grip on her tightened as Clarke took more of Lexa into her mouth. She slid the dildo further into her throat, which pushed upward into the harness once again. Lexa let out a small moan above her.

Clarke removed her mouth and looked up at her. “You like that, don’t you?” she asked, continuing to stroke with her hand and push the strap-on up against Lexa.

Lexa nodded, and she was moving her hips now, rocking the dildo in Clarke’s grip in motion with her strokes. But through her increasingly rough breathing, she didn’t say anything.

“Use your words, Lexa,” Clarke coaxed, before laying another long pass of her tongue along the strap-on.

Lexa gripped Clarke’s shoulders almost painfully. “I… like the look of you. Between my legs. And your mouth… it’s almost like I can feel it,” Lexa finally managed to say. She let out a groan as Clarke moved the strap-on up against her with a twisting motion. “And that’s hitting me just right.”

“This?” Clarke asked impishly, as she increased the rhythm of her hand along the shaft.

But Lexa just let out a small moan again, her eyes fluttering shut, and Clarke had her answer. When Lexa’s eyes fell on her again, Clarke placed her mouth back onto the strap-on and coated most of the length of it with her saliva. She felt herself being tugged by Lexa’s firm grip on her shoulders. She pulled off again and looked up at her. “It’s OK to hold my head,” she said, wanting to feel Lexa’s fingers in her hair, wondering if Lexa would pull at it, fantasizing about how hard Lexa would force her down.

To her relief, Lexa did it. She placed a hand on the back of Clarke’s head, gently at first. But it didn’t take many more passes of Clarke’s hand and mouth before Lexa’s fingers were twisting in her hair on the back of her head and pulling Clarke in.

Clarke loved it, how Lexa was pulling her in time with her strokes, making her take in more and more of it. She pushed against it now, not just with her hand but with her mouth as well. Lexa’s hips were moving in tandem, and Clarke hung onto her with her other hand placed behind her thigh, could feel Lexa’s muscles tightening in her grip, feel the franticness of her thrusts, the increasing regularity of her moans.

Lexa couldn't last long. Muttering Clarke’s name, Lexa clung onto her hair desperately. The dildo shook in Clarke’s mouth and in her grip all the same. Clarke looked up to be see Lexa in rapture, her head thrown back, every muscle in her body rigid, her boobs rocking up and down as she spasmed. And when Lexa finally opened her eyes again and stared down at her in wonder, Clarke still couldn’t believe that all of this was hers, that she was privileged and trusted enough to see Lexa like this.

Lexa pulled her up with two strong hands on her arms and kissed her with all of the passion that her earlier cries had suggested. Her hips moving forward into Clarke’s brought the dildo right up against her. t wasn’t a lot of pressure, but it was still enough for Clarke to moan into her mouth.

And just like that, Clarke’s clothes were flying off of her body. It had seemed like a good idea at the time to keep them on, to tease Lexa just that little bit more, but now they were a serious impediment. She tore her own shorts and underwear off, and Lexa broke their kiss long enough to pull her tanktop off as well, and then Clarke was pushing her back onto the bed.

Lexa fell onto her back and bounced on the bed, laughing, which was somehow both adorable and incredibly attractive. Clarke was on her in a second, a knee on either side of her, and she knelt forward to take Lexa’s mouth in hers. But Lexa sat up into her kiss, and Clarke knew her abs would be flexing beautifully. She ran her center down along them, felt them harden underneath her, felt her wetness coat them as she slid along them. She moved all the way down to the harness, where she felt the dildo catch against her ass. Lexa shuddered beneath her. Clearly one orgasm wasn’t enough for her tonight.

But Clarke was soaking. Watching Lexa get off, and feeling how Lexa wanted more of her, seeing how her gaze roamed across her body like she owned it, was too much for Clarke to ignore. She reached down and took the strap-on in her hand, looking in Lexa’s eyes and finding her own desire reflected there. She rubbed the dildo against herself, and she felt a spasm rock through her when she got to her clit. Getting Lexa off earlier had made her very ready. She rose up onto her knees and repositioned it against her opening and fell down onto it gradually.

She watched Lexa’s expression carefully, could see the exact moment when the strap-on pressed against the harness and into her. Lexa let out a ragged breath and put a hand behind Clarke’s neck, bringing her into a searing kiss.

But even as wet as Clarke was, and how much she had soaked the strap-on with her saliva earlier, she needed to ease into it. She rose up again, felt the strap-on almost leave her, before falling down a little further onto it. She was already so full, and yet she had only taken half of it inside of her. She rocked her hips forward with it still sheathed inside of her, and she swore Lexa was going to come all over again.

Lexa was moving her hips too, and she was moving the dildo deeper inside of her. Clarke cried out at the stretch of it. With another turn of her hips she was moaning even louder into Lexa’s mouth.

Then Lexa redirected her mouth onto Clarke’s neck and downward, and Clarke could only grip onto Lexa’s back and hold on. Lexa licked down her chest, took a nipple into her mouth, and licked and prodded with her tongue in such a delicious way that Clarke could only hold her head there and wish she never stopped. They rocked together, obscene sounds punctuated by Clarke’s moans and an occasional grunt from Lexa as she thrust upward into her.

Clarke cried out as out how deep into her Lexa was now. She was hitting her g-spot and causing Clarke to only be able to focus on that one source of pleasure causing waves throughout her body. She closed her eyes, unable to even process anything else, so she didn’t realize that Lexa had slipped a hand down between her legs. Her fingers found the enlarged bud of her clit and pressed against it gently, but it was enough to make Clarke jerk against her. She rubbed slow circles against it, pressing harder and softer in time with Clarke’s now desperate movements against. It was so intense that Clarke’s eyes burst open again. She found Lexa staring up at her from between her breasts, breathing almost as hard as she was.

Seeing Lexa look up at her like that was too much. “I’m going to come, Lexa,” Clarke whined.

“Come for me, Clarke,” Lexa said, almost in a whisper, as she moved up deep inside of her with a powerful thrust of her hips.

Clarke came apart. Her mouth gaped open, as wave after wave coursed through her. She bent forward, biting Lexa’s shoulder, and clung onto her as she shook. It just kept going, as if each movement of Lexa inside of her could draw out more. But she finally sagged against Lexa, practically needing to be held up by her. Lucky for her, Lexa was strong and just held her with two arms crossed around her back.

“Clarke?” Lexa questioned softly, rubbing her back.

“I’m OK. I’m OK, I swear.” Clarke steadied herself and lifted herself off of the strap-on. It was a soaked mess, as was to be expected. Clarke fought to catch her breath. “That was just… a lot, for some reason.”

“Was it good though?” Lexa asked as she rubbed her hands up and down Clarke’s arms. “I thought it was.”

Clarke almost laughed. “No, it was very good. You’ve really gotten great at that.”

Lexa was unstrapping the harness from herself. “I…” She placed it further down the bed from them, but Clarke noticed how red her cheeks were getting. “I may have practiced while you were gone.”

“Practiced?” Clarke repeated in disbelief.

“Just by myself, obviously,” Lexa went on, looking away. “But I knew my endurance could have been better, and I didn’t really know how to move my hips with the harness on.”

“So you practiced.” Clarke’s smile grew, seeing how self-conscious Lexa felt telling her that she had been wearing the harness and strap-on by herself and thrusting at nothing.

Lexa ran a hand through her (now very messy) hair. “It seemed to pay off.”

“Come here, please.”

Lexa looked up again as Clarke drew her into a soft kiss. It was everything that their latest fucking session hadn’t been. She looked intently into Lexa’s eyes. “I love that you practiced your dildo moves for me. That’s one of the hardest orgasms I’ve ever had.”

Lexa’s smile just got brighter and brighter, until she leaned forward and pushed Clarke down onto the bed under her. “I’m glad you feel that way, because the blowjob, and the rest of it, were…” She struggled to find the right word.

“I think the word you’re looking for is ‘really fucking good.’”

“That’s three words, Clarke,” Lexa said, propping herself up on her elbows and resting her body down onto Clarke’s.

Clarke placed a quick kiss on her lips and held her tight. “Remember when you weren’t sure if you wanted to try the strap-on or not?”

But Lexa just rolled her eyes. “This sounds an awful lot like ‘I told you so.’”

“Because it is.” Clarke grinned up at her. “I told you so.”

Clarke let herself be shut up by a very thorough kiss.

**********

Surprisingly, to Clarke at least, the wedding was in a church. While neither Anya nor Gustus were religious, they each had a soft spot for customs and tradition. Clarke thought it was ironic that they wanted a church wedding, considering Gustus was also the owner of Polis’ only bar, and Anya could out-swear Clarke. But Clarke reasoned this was yet another manifestation of the dichotomy of man.

Since Lexa was a bridesmaid, Clarke had to find someone else to sit with during the ceremony. But as always, the people of Polis accepted her with open arms, literally, and she had to migrate from pew to pew just to be able to hug everyone before the wedding began. (She tried to imagine something like this happening in one of the weddings she attended in Seattle and couldn’t even imagine this level of community and warmth. It was yet another reason she was starting to think of Polis as home.) Finally, she was able to settle beside Marcus, who had been dating Indra for several months now and was also orphaned by his bridesmaid girlfriend.

But then the procession began, starting with Anya’s mother walking down the aisle. And even though Clarke should have been ready--she had helped her with her tie and driven with her to the wedding, after all--Clarke was still floored when Lexa walked regally down the aisle, her new suit perfectly tailored and highlighting the straight lines of her body, her hair put up in an elegant braid on the back of her head. Lexa was breathtaking, all the more so when Lexa found her in the crowd and smiled.

Clarke couldn’t help but imagine what it would be like if this were their wedding, if Lexa was walking up to the dais not as a bridesmaid, but as a bride. She could imagine Lexa standing on the stage like she was now, hands clasped in front of her, watching with expectation as Clarke would be the last in the procession, with her brilliant white dress and her hair coming down onto her shoulders in curls.

She would imagine that Lexa would look at her then a lot like she was looking at her now. Confident, assured, smile bursting with love, and yet with that tiny shiver in the way she breathed that Clarke knew meant she was barely managing to hold herself together.

Clarke needed that day. She needed it soon. She wanted Lexa to be waiting for her on that stage, her eyes vowing a lifetime of love, her words confirming it, her lips sealing that promise for all to see.

But for now, this was Anya’s day. Everyone in the church rose together, as Anya walked down the aisle at a steady pace, her dress flowing behind her. Her father held her arm, and he looked over to Anya time and time again with a huge grin on his face. Gustus, in a sharp suit and with a freshly-trimmed beard, watched her with a serene expression that grew into obvious admiration as she joined him on the dais.

The pastor was brief, the vows were short but heartfelt, and the crowd cheered wildly as Gustus swept Anya into his arms and kissed her. Then, to everyone’s astonishment, he flung her over his shoulder and began running down the aisle out of the church.

“To the bar!” he yelled, holding his arm out in a fist.

Everyone in the crowd followed behind him toward the reception, which was across the street at Gustus’ bar. Clarke shook her head, laughing, as Anya flailed in Gustus’ arms (nearly kicking him in the face). He eventually returned her to the ground and grinned down at her, even as she (somewhat aggressively) patted his beard with her hand.

But Clarke could only spare so much of her attention on them. She looked back to the dais, and sure enough, Lexa was walking toward her, swagger in her step (it seemed to come naturally to her as soon as she put that stupidly attractive suit on). Clarke saw the way Lexa’s eyes passed up and down her blue dress, lingered on the not insignificant amount of cleavage that Clarke was showing.

Lexa came up to her with a lopsided smile that Clarke simply had to kiss. In her heels, she was a good inch taller than Lexa in heels and had to stoop down. She liked how Lexa craned her neck up to meet her.

“Hey, handsome,” Clarke said, tugging on the lapels of Lexa’s suit. She couldn’t get enough of Lexa in a suit. “You looked amazing up there.”

“I think you were supposed to be watching the wedding, Clarke, not me,” Lexa said, even though her gaze was dropping well below Clarke’s eyes.

“Well you were making it really fucking difficult when you kept smiling at me like that.”

“Like what?”

“Like you’re smiling at me now.”

And it was true, Lexa’s small, content smile hadn’t lifted since the wedding had begun. She leaned in and wrapped her arms around Clarke’s waist. “It’s only because I’m imagining a different wedding day,” Lexa said, eyes fluttering between Clarke’s. “One where you’ll be on the stage with me.”

Clarke rested her arms on Lexa’s shoulders and wound her fingers into the short hairs at the back of Lexa’s neck that had escaped the braids. “I was thinking the same thing. But not in a church.”

Lexa shook her head. “I was thinking outside.”

Clarke was finding it harder and harder not to kiss Lexa, between the suit, Lexa holding her like that, and now talking about their-- their --wedding. “I could get behind that.”

“And a live band.”

Clarke laughed, pulling her even closer. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” she said, staring into Lexa’s (beautiful, vibrant) green eyes. “One of us should probably propose to the other first, before we go and plan the details of our wedding.”

Lexa stared back at her, her smile only growing larger. But rather than say anything, she just took Clarke’s hand and led her down the aisle toward the back of the church.

“What does that mean?” Clarke asked, amazed.

“I didn’t say anything,” Lexa said, even though she was still smiling like she had something to hide.

“I know, and that’s what worries me.” Clarke stopped in her tracks. “Wait. You’re not doing it today, are you?”

“Clarke, relax.” Lexa stopped and took both of Clarke’s hands in her own. “I wouldn’t propose on Anya’s wedding day. This is their day, not ours.”

Clarke stepped further into Lexa’s space. She was glad everyone else had already cleared out of the church, leaving them alone, because she knew the look she was giving Lexa was far from pure. “So if not today, then when?” Clarke asked in a low voice.

Lexa sighed. “It’s supposed to be a surprise. That’s how proposals work.”  

“But what you forget,” Clarke said, “is that I hate surprises. You’ll have to give me some warning first. Maybe leave me some notes around the house with hints for when you’re going to pop the question--”

“I’ll write it on the calendar,” Lexa said flatly.

“Really?”

“No.”

“Why not?” Clarke said much more dramatically than she felt. “Now I’m just going to be wondering and worrying about it until you actually do.” Clarke narrowed her eyes as a thought occurred to her. “Or maybe I’ll propose first.”

But Lexa leveled a stern look at her. “No, you’re not.”

“Why? You already have a ring or something?” Clarke meant it as a joke, but the way that Lexa immediately looked away was suspicious. Clarke placed a gentle hand onto Lexa’s cheek and redirected her gaze back to her. Clarke’s love for Lexa blossomed all over again. “You do, don’t you.”

Even as Lexa’s eyes softened, she set her chin stubbornly. “It’s still going to be a surprise.”

“I can’t wait.” But now Clarke was thinking about the ring, about how Lexa would drop down onto one knee, how Lexa would gaze up at her like she were the most important thing in the world. Clarke pulled her into a soft kiss that she still nonetheless became lost in. Because as much as they could say with words, there was also a lot that they couldn’t say, and Lexa’s lips against hers seemed to speak a hundred different languages that only Clarke could understand.

“We probably shouldn’t make out in a church,” Lexa said, pulling away, even though she sounded more than a little disappointed.

“Even though Jesus said to ‘love your neighbor?’” But Clarke decided to be good and just placed a tiny peck onto Lexa’s nose. “We should go check out the reception anyway. Wanna get kinda drunk?”

Lexa laughed, glancing back to the huge crucifix on the wall behind them. “Now I know he wouldn’t support that.”

“Psssh. He turned water into wine, at a wedding . Don’t tell me he wasn’t the biggest enabler out there.”

Lexa could only shake her head, as Clarke tugged her out of the church and across the street to the bar.

**********

Ranch life was busier than ever. Lexa had rebuilt the herd to its size before the harsh winter during Clarke’s contract, which meant more cattle to check, vaccinate, breed, and corral. The herd still needed to be provided supplement feed after the dry spring, although the rains picked up in the last half of the summer and helped the grass to grow more thickly. Random tasks around the ranch needed to be dealt with, like a leaky roof in the cabin and transmission trouble in the truck (Clarke suggested that the truck was maybe on its last leg, but Lexa would have none of it. Clarke attributed it to Lexa’s family owning that truck for upwards of three decades. There were likely too many memories tied up in the squeaky frame and rusty body for Lexa to dispose of it lightly.)

In addition to their usual tasks, Clarke also found herself talking to more people in Polis about their cattle or sheep or dogs. Sometimes, Clarke could point them in the right direction just after hearing them explain the situation. But other times, she made the trip out to their homes or ranches, or they brought their animals to Lexa’s ranch, and Clarke would find out what the problem was. And every time, the animal owners would insist that Clarke take something for her trouble. Before long, Clarke realized she was running a veterinary business without even meaning to. She resolved to make it a proper business after she graduated, but for now, the extra money in her pocket--and strengthening ties with the community--were nice.

As much as Clarke loved helping people in Polis keep their animals healthy, she was just as excited about how successful the Lexa’s dude ranch was progressing. Earlier that year, Lexa (still as computer illiterate as ever) had teamed up with Anya (who had web experience from her accounting firm) to create a new, more sophisticated website for the operation. After their successful run last year, Clarke and Lexa decided to shift the dude ranch’s advertising to the LGBT community exclusively, and it was paying off.

They only scheduled guests for every other week, but they were booked for the entire summer. Couples hoping for an adventurous getaway, families eager to bond over something completely different, children absolutely obsessed with cattle and horses and riding on Daenerys’ back. Every new set of guests wanted to explore a different focus and were interested in different facets of the ranch. Sometimes, Clarke would run through her experience as a city girl finding her place in the American West, while others asked Lexa endless questions about the business aspect of the ranch, while others just wanted to shoot the shit for a weekend. But through it all, Clarke was sure to ask the couples questions of her own: how they met, the struggles they faced as a same-sex couple, changing acceptance in their communities, how they decided to start a family, the challenges of being two moms or two dads. Part of it was Clarke’s natural curiosity, part of it was trying to make her guests feel welcome, but part of it was also strategic: Clarke hoped that this information would be relevant in the near future.

Because how could she not imagine introducing Lexa to people as her wife? How could she not fantasize about going on vacation with her? And how, when Lexa was running around with children in the yard, or showing them how to secure a saddle, or telling them a story from her childhood on the ranch, could Clarke not hope that maybe, one day, Lexa could be doing the same with children of their own?

Clarke imagined it. She imagined it more than ever. She wasn’t one for idle fantasy, but this didn’t feel like daydreams. This felt like planning for the future. Their future.

And every time their guests for the week would leave, Lexa would wrap her arms around Clarke and hold her tight. They would talk about what they thought of the family, what they learned, what they might do differently with the next group, and what their favorite part of it was. And always--always--Lexa’s favorite part of hosting the family would be finding what aspect of ranch life really made the kids’ eyes light up.

And every time, Clarke’s heart became just a little bit fuller.

One day, Clarke bounced back over the dirt roads in the truck and frankly was just grateful that the truck had survived one more trip. Over particularly rough patches of road, the squeaks could be louder than the radio, which she already had cranked up over the roar of the wind through the windows. She had managed to diagnose and treat another ranch’s sickly cow and made another good contact in the area. She knew she wouldn’t become rich out here, treating people’s pets and farm animals, but at least her progress in her doctorate was starting to pay off.

She wasn’t surprised when she pulled into the ranch and Lexa was nowhere in sight. She knew Lexa had plenty of tasks that day, mostly gear maintenance and herd management. The truck creaked to a stop, and Clarke grabbed her things and headed into the cabin for a glass of water.

The smell of cinnamon immediately hit her. A plate of cinnamon rolls, arranged in a circle, waited for her on the table, with a handwritten note beside it. Clarke scanned the rest of the cabin, but all was still, except for her heart that was beating increasingly fast. She crossed to the table and picked up the note with trembling hands. It was filled with Lexa’s small, precise handwriting.

Clarke,

The smell of cinnamon will always remind me of you. I will never forget that Christmas three years ago when we were snowed in and I truly began falling endlessly in love with you. You convinced me to wear an apron, which I will never admit to anyone but you. I’m afraid that, despite your best efforts, I am still a mediocre cook. But I hope these cinnamon rolls show that, if you’ll have me, I’ll always try my best for you.

Grab a cinnamon roll (or don’t… they’re a bit tough) and please proceed to the bedroom.

L

Clarke held the letter in her hand for a long moment, reading it over again.

If you’ll have me…

The phrase repeated over and over in her head. Was this it? Was this an elaborate, drawn-out way for Lexa to finally…

Propose?

Clarke forced herself to be calm as she took a cinnamon roll (a little hard, true, but far from inedible. She wondered how many times Lexa had to make and remake the recipe to get it right). She crossed to the bedroom and nudged the door open, not knowing what to expect.

She covered her mouth with one hand. Of course.

The curtains were drawn, and soft fairy lights were hung near the ceiling along all of the walls. But Clarke’s eyes were drawn to the bed. It was covered with rose petals. There was no pattern to them, besides the fact that they were rather normally distributed across the bedspread. She could see Lexa taking the time to arrange each of them, backing up and assessing them, and moving them just slightly again until she was content with the arrangement.

Clarke desperately wanted Lexa to be there, so that she could see Lexa trying to smirk even while watching Clarke’s reaction to her work. Clarke would kiss away that hint of insecurity and say yes, of course she would have her, one thousand times over. But Lexa wasn’t there, and Clarke could only step forward and take another note from on top of the bed. It was surrounded by rose petals and retained some of their scent.

Clarke,

I remember when you would sleep here during the coldest part of the winter. You said it was just to stay warm, and I accepted it, even though I hoped with every fiber of my being that you really wanted to be with me. I was already falling for you. I would do anything to be close to you. Those nights with you curled up next to me, as the winds howled and the snow pelted against the window, were some of the happiest of my life. And now, if you’ll have me, I want to pass every winter evening here with you, and every spring, summer, and fall evening too.

You are my warmth in the winter, the promise of new life in the spring, the heat and passion of summer, the tranquility of autumn. You bring joy to every season of my life, and I hope that I can try to bring that same joy in yours.

Next, could you visit where we shared our first kiss?

L

Clarke wasn’t crying , obviously. Even if Lexa was being such a romantic sap and making Clarke wonder how stumbling onto a ranch in the middle of nowhere years ago could completely change the trajectory of her life in such a beautiful way. But Clarke wouldn’t cry, not now, not when she knew that she had at least one more note from Lexa to read. She could at least hold it together until then.

That morning, Clarke had wondered why Lexa had been acting strangely. Why she had confirmed three times that Clarke wouldn’t be back until the afternoon. Why she had been tapping the edge of her coffee mug all breakfast. Why she had run into the cabin as soon as Clarke pulled out from the ranch gate. But now she knew, and Clarke should have seen it all along.

Walking out to the truck, Clarke couldn’t believe that she hadn’t noticed anything in it earlier that day, but there was another note in the bed of the truck, tucked into a pocket of clear tape. Clarke sat leaning against the back window, in the very spot where they had first kissed.

Clarke,

Maybe some aspects of the ranch aren’t the most romantic (saddle sores and cow manure come to mind), but I really tried to romance you that day when I drove you out to the best vantage point for miles around to watch the sunset. I would have been content just to sit there with you and share that moment, even if I wanted nothing more than to kiss you. But kissing you felt like the entire world was opening for me. There were possibilities on your lips that I hadn’t even dared to dream about. If you’ll have me, I hope we can reach them, together, one by one.

The barn will hold the next (and final) note.

L

Alright, now Clarke was crying. There was nothing she could do, no amount of self control that could possibly hold them back. But she tucked the paper into her pocket, because she needed to find Lexa, now. She needed to tell her that she would have her, and Lexa should know that by now. She needed to know what possibilities Lexa wanted to strive for and see if they were the same that Clarke had tasted on Lexa’s lips that day, and every other time they had kissed since.

Clarke hadn’t thought she would find Lexa in the barn, and she was right. But Clarke’s horse waited for her, fully saddled with the reins tied around a hook. Clarke searched for the next note and blinked through her tears so that she could read it.

Clarke,

Remember when you didn’t know how to ride a horse? Those days seem so far away now. You continually impress me with your innate ability, your perseverance, and your compassion. I would simply not be here if not for you riding out into a dark night to find me. But you’ve done so much more than save my life. You’ve made it worth living. I could never tell you or show you the depths of my love for you, but, if you’ll have me, I’ll try.

Meet me in the first pasture near the stream.

L

Clarke returned the note to the saddle bag and pushed herself up into the saddle without a second thought. She clicked for the horse to gallop and away they went, out the barn doors and through the gate and across the late-afternoon grassland like the devil was on her heels. She had never needed to see someone so urgently in her life. She could feel the weight of the notes she carried, feel the weight of a promise in her pocket, and they only drove her to spur the horse on harder. She climbed one more hill, came to the top of it, and there she was below.

Lexa stood with her hands clasped in front of her. It was a strong stance, and a seemingly calm one, as she gazed out over the grassland and the herd far off like drops of black on a canvass. She wore her usual combination of plaid and jeans, her shirt rolled to her elbows, her boots planted firmly in the grass. Clarke loved the shape of her, the confidence, the authority and passion and drive.

And then Lexa’s eyes latched onto her, watched as she rose to the crest of the hill, fixed her with their calm clarity. But Lexa’s quiet, assured smile was all that it took for Clarke to fly down the hill, perhaps at a speed that many might consider unsafe. She only waited for her horse to slow before she flung her leg over the saddle and dropped on the ground beside Lexa. As Lexa watcher her all the while, Lexa’s smile only grew.

“You came,” Lexa said simply, her eyes still two pools of warmth that Clarke could gaze into forever.

“Of course I did.” Clarke stepped closer, unable to stay away from her, unable not to touch her. She ran her hands down Lexa’s arms,as she let out a little laugh. “How could I read all of your letters and not come?”

Lexa just nodded, and even though Clarke knew it was coming--of course she did, of course all of this was just a very elaborate way for Lexa to ask her to marry her--Clarke still gasped when Lexa dropped to one knee. Clarke still looked down at her in shock, still found that she was holding her breath, still knew that this moment would be etched in her memory forever.

Lexa never looked away as she kneeled there. “Do you remember the first words I said to you?” she said in a small voice. A vulnerable voice.

Clarke laughed a little, even though a tear was streaming down her cheek. She remembered back to that spring, to those feelings of doubt, to not knowing how that year would turn out, or if she could even make it an entire year on a ranch. She had been hurting, confused, insecure. So much had changed since then. “You asked me if I was lost. And not in a nice way.”

Lexa confirmed it with a nod. “I did, but I should have asked myself that question instead. Clarke, you helped me find my way. I knew you were special the moment I saw you, even if I didn’t fully understand. After that first day, I knew you were strong, and fierce, and capable… if maybe a little overwhelmed.”

“Only a little?” Clarke joked past her tight throat as she tried to hold back the tide of emotion that was threatening to turn her into a blubbering mess at any moment.

But Lexa was looking up at her as if she were her whole world, and when she took out a small box from her pocket, Clarke couldn’t hold it back anymore. She inhaled sharply, as her hands rose involuntarily from her sides and covered her mouth. It didn’t matter that she had known for nearly the past hour that Lexa was doing this today--or that she knew that Lexa was going to ask her this eventually for the last few months--Clarke was still overcome.

And Clarke wasn’t the only one. Tears streamed out of Lexa’s bright, beautiful eyes, eyes that shifted from unadulterated adoration to an uncertainty that Clarke could hardly stand. Lexa held the box in both hands. “Clarke, I love everything about you: your ambition, your passion for knowledge, your commitment to helping others, your resolve, your lasagna --” Lexa grinned at that. “Spending the rest of my life with you would be the greatest honor I could ever have. Which leads me to ask…”

Lexa opened the box, revealing the ring inside. Clarke glanced at it only briefly, before locking her eyes with Lexa’s once again. The honesty and vulnerability and love that she found there were almost too much to bear without wrapping her arms around her and returning that love in any way she could.

“Clarke.” Lexa’s lips parted as she stared up at her. “Will you be my wife?”

Clarke lowered her hands from her mouth but she said nothing. Rather, she dropped down to one knee as well in front of Lexa. Confusion flashed across Lexa’s face, but before she could say anything, Clarke took out her own ring from her breast pocket.

“I’ll be your wife, Lexa,” Clarke said as she held out the ring to Lexa, watched as a thousand different emotions passed through her lover. “But only if you’ll be mine too.”

Lexa laughed without reserve, as if all of her tension was released at once. It was one of the most exquisite sounds Clarke had ever heard. “Are you really proposing during my proposal?”

“You should be happy I waited this long to do it,” Clarke said, maybe enjoying Lexa’s surprise a little too much. “I’ve been wanting to propose to you for over a year now. But I knew it was important to you.”

Even with tears streaming down her face, Lexa’s smile was beautiful as she nodded. “I’ll be your wife, Clarke.”

“And I’ll be yours.” Clarke was laughing then too. She was finally going to marry Lexa. After so many long years of waiting and separation, it was happening. She leaned forward and wiped away the tears from Lexa’s cheeks with her thumb. Relief radiated off of Lexa in waves. “I’ve always been yours, Lexa. But now we’ll only have to file one tax return.”

Lexa really looked like she wanted to kiss her, or maybe that was Clarke’s own desire talking. But for the time being, Lexa just took the ring from the box she held and waited for Clarke to extend her left hand. She slipped the ring onto her finger. It fit perfectly.

Clarke analyzed it more closely. “This is beautiful.”

“It was my mother’s,” Lexa said.

Clarke’s eyes returned to hers sharply. She wanted to ask if Lexa was sure (but Clarke knew that she was). She wanted to confirm that Lexa really thought she was the one that deserved to wear her mother’s ring (but Clarke was sure that yes, Lexa believed she was the one). It wasn’t that Clarke had objections, far from it. “Thank you, Lexa. I know how much this means to you. And I am honored to wear it.”

Clarke took her own ring and placed it on Lexa’s finger as well and was relieved when it fit.

“I’m afraid I don’t have anything quite as meaningful for you,” Clarke said, as she watched Lexa studying the ring and rolling her hand from side to side. “But I thought it matched you. And--”

But Lexa was already pulling her by the back of her neck into a kiss that knocked the words right out of Clarke’s mouth. She had shared a lot of kisses with Lexa, but this one was different. It meant more. It meant forever.

“I love it, Clarke.” Lexa caressed the side of her cheek before standing and pulling Clarke up as well. She held her by the hands, seemed unwilling to let her go or even to look away.

(Clarke could relate. Despite knowing that they would propose to each other for months--years, even--actually having it happen and being engaged to Lexa was another feeling entirely.)

Clarke pulled her in for another brief kiss. “Do you want to know when I first thought about marrying you?” Clarke asked.

Lexa just nodded as her eyes slowly fluttered open again. The dreamy look in them almost compelled Clarke to kiss her again, but instead she wrapped her arms around Lexa’s waist and just held her close.

“Well…” Clarke turned the words over in her mind. She had thought about this so much over the last several months that she had nearly memorized what she wanted to tell Lexa. “I first thought about marrying you when we were making pumpkin pie for our first Thanksgiving together.

She watched Lexa’s eyes go wide. They had only known each other for about seven months at that point, and even more critically, that had been shortly after Clarke had returned to working on the ranch. Clarke had barely begun speaking civilly to Lexa again by that point. Her grip on the grudge had been slipping, if not yet wholly released.

“The thought took me completely by surprise,” Clarke went on. “But you had flour all over your nose. The apron I made you wear was filthy. I think you got more food on yourself than in the pie. How was I supposed to resist that kind of high-level seduction?”

Lexa’s eyes smiled at her just as much as her lips did. “I was trying to cook, Clarke. Not seduce you.”

“That’s exactly what a seductress would say,” Clarke said, pulling her a little closer. Little tufts of hair around Lexa’s forehead had come undone from her braid. She smoothed them down with her fingers, as she recalled how out of her element Lexa had seemed, how willing she had been to try something new for Clarke. That willingness had continued: with their long distance relationship, with opening the dude ranch, with visiting Seattle and her family. Lexa didn’t hesitate to stretch herself.

“You were being so silly,” Clarke continued, “so unlike the Lexa I had first met on the ranch. It was like you were showing me another side of yourself that you keep hidden from most people. I wondered what other sides of yourself I would get to see and how long it would take before you trusted me with them. If you ever would, after the things that I had said and done.”

Lexa remained silent, but she took both of Clarke’s hands from her waist and held them in her own. Clarke could feel support radiating through them, as if Lexa was saying of course she trusted her, of course she forgave her.

Clarke took strength through those hands. “I barely let myself think about it, but I realized that I wanted to see those other sides of you, no matter how long it took. I realized that, even though I had been focused on rebuilding my trust in you, that you were also still building your trust in me. And that it was important to me and worth whatever amount of time it would take for that to happen.”

She took a moment to blink the sudden tears in her eyes away. It wouldn’t do to not be able to finish her thought because she was blubbering like an idiot. But she couldn’t help it when she considered how close she and Lexa had been to not being together, to saying goodbye once and for all.

“I wasn’t thinking about you in terms of months or contracts,” Clarke said. “I wondered what it would be like to cook next Thanksgiving with you too, and see how you celebrated Christmas and New Year’s, and relive those days of summer when we had grown close. I wondered what our lives might look like the next year, and the year after that.”

Clarke found herself laughing and shaking her head slightly.  “Basically, I was already thinking what it would be like to be married to you.” She reached forward and lightly touched the tip of Lexa’s nose with her finger. “And it all started with flour on your nose.”

Lexa watcher her with the softest expression. She wrapped her arms around Clarke’s shoulders and brought their foreheads together. “I know that I’m the sappy one,” she said barely above a whisper, “but that was pretty sappy, Clarke.”

Clarke chuckled against her as she leaned toward her. “I think you’re rubbing off on me, Lexa.”

Their kiss began delicately, purely, a manifestation of Lexa’s notes around the ranch and Clarke’s heartfelt words as the grass rustled around their boots. But as Lexa clung to her, and Clarke brought their bodies flush against each other, their tongues swirled together, and heat erupted between them, Lexa pulled away.

“Can we…” she began before kissing Clarke again, as if her lips were drawn to hers, couldn’t get enough of them.

Clarke kissed her back, hard, before pushing her back by the waist. “We should go home,” she breathed. Lexa’s kiss-bruised lips convinced her even more that they should.

“As fast as possible,” Lexa said. She separated from Clarke and took the reins of her horse nearby. She mounted the horse in one smooth movement, which only reminded Clarke what else Lexa could do with her muscles and dexterity.

Clarke ran to her own horse, a thought occurring to her as she vaulted into the saddle. “Why don’t we make this more interesting?” Lexa just watched her carefully. “First one back gets to make the rules. And the other has to follow them, no matter what.”

Lexa said nothing, her eyes flashing. But faster than Clarke could believe, Lexa was kicking her heels into her horse and setting off up the hill.

“Not fair!” Clarke yelled, even as Lexa’s laughter far ahead drifted back to her.

Clarke urged her horse forward, a joy and a thrill rushing through her. She had no chance in hell of catching up with Lexa, but that didn’t matter. All she could think about was that she was really, truly, finally going to marry Lexa. She couldn’t stop grinning all the way back as she watched Lexa’s graceful form in front of her lead her back to the cabin.

Back home.

Chapter Text

When it came to Clarke, Lexa didn’t bother with subtlety. Her countdown to Clarke’s graduation (and her subsequent move back to the ranch) was prominently displayed on the kitchen calendar. She had even bought a special pen to write the countdown in--none of her other markers were quite bold enough. At the beginning, writing 250 days on the calendar had been like a punch to the gut. But the number slowly (ever so slowly) shrank down. Clarke had teased her about the calendar when she had visited for Christmas, but Lexa broke the news that she had seen a similar calendar hanging on Clarke’s wall in one of their video chats.

Clarke’s return wasn’t the only countdown that Lexa had. They had decided on a date for another milestone too: their wedding.

For months, Lexa couldn’t even think the word without her heart practically beating out of her chest. It would occur to her all of a sudden and take her completely by surprise every time. She was going to marry Clarke-- actually marry Clarke! --and it would first shock her, then amaze her, then make her grin like a fool.  

But there were details to work out: where they were going to have the ceremony (the ranch was an obvious choice), what their reception would look like (snacks, drinks, and dancing), who they would invite (pretty much everyone, as it turned out), color schemes and flowers and a whole list of things that Lexa had never even considered. Gratefully, even a thousand miles away, Clarke was able to take on most of the overarching planning, while Lexa handled the on-the-ground logistics. It was a good partnership, which reminded Lexa for the thousandth time how well they worked together.

After months of waiting, after crossing days off of the calendar and wondering how 250 could ever come down to zero, after missing Clarke’s laugh and her smile and the warmth of her kiss more than she could ever explain, Lexa made the drive to Colorado for her graduation. When she arrived, she barely had enough time to change into a smart button-up and slacks before the ceremony. She found Clarke waiting for her outside the auditorium.

“You made it,” Clarke said in obvious relief, her smile wide beneath her black graduation cap.

Lexa pulled her in by her graduation robe and let her kiss demonstrate just how much she had missed Clarke after all those months. With Clarke’s lips eagerly meeting her own, it took Lexa almost no effort to ignore a woman nearby whistling and yelling “Get it, Clarke!”

But Clarke pulled away and sent a glare toward a blonde woman also wearing graduation garb. “Let me make out with my fiancee in peace, Harper.”

“Sorry, right.” Harper waved at Lexa. “I’m Harper. It’s starting in a few minutes…”

Lexa waved back but was immediately drawn back to Clarke. She wore her hair loose underneath the cap, and quite frankly it was begging to be touched. She heard Harper clearing her throat.

“I’ll just…” Harper motioned behind her to the auditorium. “Go find my girlfriend, I guess.”

“I’ll be there in a sec,” Clarke responded as she tugged Lexa in by her belt loops.

Lexa let herself be pulled in. After five months away from her, every touch from Clarke was electric. “You shouldn’t be late to your own graduation,” she reminded her, even as she craved her presence.

“It means a lot to me that you’re here.” Clarke’s eyes roamed over her face, as if they were relearning the shape of her.

Clarke’s tight grip on her waist only made Lexa want to stay away from the stuffy room and ceremony all the more. “You know I wouldn’t miss this,” she said, feeling herself being drawn in by the swell of Clarke’s lips.

But their kiss was interrupted by a voice on the loudspeaker in the room behind them, urging everyone to take their seats. Clarke gave one last nip of her lip before taking her hand and leading her into the room. “Plenty of time for that later,” Clarke said, a downward flash of her eyes leaving no interpretation to what she meant.

Lexa tried her best to wait patiently as the names were called and the graduates passed across the stage. Finally, Clarke’s name was said, and she walked across the stage with a confident gait and glowing smile toward her supervisor. She was donned in a green and black hood and passed the tassles on her cap to the left, marking her transformation into Dr. Clarke Griffin.

After the ceremony, Lexa could only watch her proudly as Clarke hugged and high-fived and joked with her classmates who had endured the same four years of endless work and insufficient sleep. But when Clarke saw her, she ran over to her and looped her arms behind Lexa’s neck.

“I really did it,” Clarke whispered into her ear, seeming to hardly believe it herself.

“I knew you would, Dr. Griffin,” Lexa said before being tugged into the gaggle of new doctors and being introduced to them one by one.

That night, it seemed the entire graduating class showed up to the same bar. She threw darts with Harper and her girlfriend Zoe and discouraged Bellamy from making a pyramid of shot glasses with Gina, his new (but he assured her, very serious) girlfriend. And always, Clarke was there by her side, drinking and laughing and occasionally staring at her with so much desire that Lexa knew they wouldn’t be long for this party.

When Clarke’s hand slid up Lexa’s leg under the table, she knew the time had come. “Want to get out of here?” Clarke whispered into her ear.

Lexa didn’t have to be asked twice.

**********

The next morning, Clarke’s apartment was already packed, and all there as to do was move the boxes into the back of Lexa’s pick-up.

Then why was Clarke leaning against the apartment wall with that smug smile on her face? Lexa passed her again with boxes stacked high in her arms and rolled her eyes. “Done gawking yet, Clarke?”

“Never.” Clarke pushed herself off the wall and picked up a small box. She crossed the room to open the door for her, tracing her fingers across the muscles of Lexa’s arm. “Not when you put on such a good show. You only own one tank top, and you decided to bring it on this trip? Show off.”

“It’s hot outside.” Lexa breathed a little heavily as she carried the boxes down the hallway with Clarke trailing behind her. “You’re wearing a tank top too.”

“And I’ve seen you gawking at me too when you think I’m not looking,” Clarke countered. They passed out of the apartment complex and into the parking lot. “At least I’m honest about it.”

Lexa heaved the boxes into the back of the truck and looked back to see that Clarke was very obviously staring at her ass. “I feel like I’m a circus animal doing tricks right now.”

Clarke’s eyes snapped up to hers as if she had suddenly started paying attention. “Were you saying something?”

Lexa just took the box from her hands and placed it on the growing pile in the truck bed. “Let’s focus, Clarke.”

“On what?” Clarke said with a mischievous smile.

Rolling her eyes again, Lexa still couldn’t help stepping into Clarke’s space and encircling her in her arms. “What about this. We focus on the boxes for now, and then we can focus on that later.”

Clarke hummed her agreement. “We’ve got to do it one more time in my apartment. For old time’s sake.”

“Just once?” Lexa let the moment grow thick with potential between them before she broke away and strode back toward the apartment. “But first, boxes.”

“Stupid boxes,” Clarke grumbled under her breath as she ran after her.

**********

When they made it back to the ranch, Lexa barely let Clarke out of the car before she was kissing her and pushing her back toward the cabin. By some miracle, they managed to avoid all major pieces of furniture on their way to the bedroom.

Hours later, the pattering of raindrops on the window reminded them that Clarke’s boxes were all still in the back of the truck. After a somewhat manic and mostly naked rush to unload them into the cabin, they managed to save Clarke’s worldly possessions from becoming drenched in one of the season’s first thunderstorms.

They allowed themselves to spend the rest of the day in bed, but after that, the ranch demanded all of their time and energy. The year’s new calves, born just a few weeks before, needed their vaccinations and tags and, Clarke’s (least) favorite task, castration. In addition to their daily ranch tasks, Clarke worked to get her state veterinary license and insurance. But even before she finalized the paperwork, ranchers were practically begging her to come look at their cattle and horses. Lexa hasn’t surprised at all that Clarke had already established herself as an essential part of the community.

Despite their nonstop dawn-to-dusk schedules, Lexa continued the other countdown on her calendar. Their wedding day was only a few weeks away.

Lexa had never really dreamed about her wedding like she knew many young girls did. Maybe she was just too much of a tomboy growing up, or maybe the idea of marrying a man turned her off of the idea completely. But maybe, secretly, she never truly expected this day to arrive.

Just a few years ago, Lexa had doubted that she would ever meet someone she could connect with, someone who understood her, pushed her, challenged her, loved her. And then Clarke happened, and everything Lexa had accepted about her future and her life alone turned upside down. Lexa generally wasn’t one for surprises, but Clarke was a notable exception.

As excited as Lexa was about the wedding itself--gathering her friends and extended family and being able, on a stage in front of her everyone who mattered most in her life, to go this is the woman that I’ll be spending the rest of my life with. Isn’t she wonderful? Isn’t she gorgeous? How did I ever deserve to be this happy?-- there was one part of the process that Lexa was less thrilled about.

The bachelorette party.

Lexa was not a killjoy. She knew how to have fun, she knew what she liked. But she also knew that Anya and Indra (but especially Anya) could go a little overboard in trying to push Lexa into situations that she was not entirely comfortable with.

“Do not have it the day before the wedding,” Lexa told them sternly after a dinner and board game night. Clarke was inside cleaning up while Lexa used the excuse of walking Anya and Indra out to their trucks to talk to them about her party.

“We know,” Indra said with some level of annoyance (but that was usually how she sounded, to be honest). “You don’t want to be hungover for your wedding. We get it.”

“And no strippers,” Lexa repeated. It was at least the tenth time she had reminded them about that, but she knew Anya. Based on how… crude some of the elements of her own bachelorette party had been, Lexa was worried that she might incorporate some of the same themes into Lexa’s.

But even in the faint moonlight of the evening, Lexa could still see Anya’s glare. It was the same glare Anya had given her the other nine times Lexa had protested against strippers. “If you mention that one more time,” Anya warned, “I’m going to hire as many strippers as I can afford. And then Indra and I will strip too, just to make a point.”

“Speak for yourself,” Indra said emphatically, shooting Anya a look.

Anya folded her arms as she redirected her attention to Lexa. “I just don’t get it. Why wouldn’t you want a hot, mostly naked woman in front of your eyeballs?”

Lexa took a deep breath and let it out slowly. She knew Anya meant the best, and generally her persistence was a positive trait, but not tonight. “I just want a relaxing party. No dance music. Everyone keeps their clothes on. No one gets arrested for public indecency.”

“Wow, you really know how to have a good time,” Anya deadpanned. But she threw her arms in the air in resignation. “But OK.”

Lexa stared at her. “Really?”

“Yeah.” Anya gave her a small smile. “It’s not the kind of party I would want--”

“Me neither,” Indra added (Lexa thought unnecessarily).

“But you’re the one getting married here.” Anya shrugged with one shoulder. “We’ll do something that makes you happy. Even if we’d rather drive you to Billings and get you so wasted you dance on a table.”

Indra frowned. “That would never happen. She’s not a dancing drunk. She would just sit there in a dreamy daze and tell us how much she loves Clarke.”

“Damn it, you’re right,” Anya said, shaking her head. “Oh well, it was a nice thought. We’ve got a plan B we can go with instead.”

“Which is?” Lexa looked between the two of them with suspicion. “We never actually agreed on anything.”

Indra rolled her eyes a little. “She really doesn’t do well with surprises, does she?”

“Some things never change.” Anya turned on her heel and motioned for Indra to follow her. “Come on, we’ve got party planning to do.”

Lexa could only stand there, flabbergasted. “At least tell me what day it will be!” she yelled after them.

“Bye, Lexa,” Indra said, not even looking back at her.

**********

The pre-wedding checklist was being steadily whittled down. The chairs, tables, stage, sound equipment, and tent were rented; the flowers were ordered; rehearsal was scheduled; the minister and band were booked; food and cake and drinks were arranged. This, on top of the usual dizzying number of tasks around the ranch, kept Lexa busy from the moment she awoke to the moment she crashed into bed with Clarke. In fact, she was so busy that she forgot about her bachelorette party.

But one summer afternoon, only two days ( two days! ) until the wedding, Lexa left the cabin to drive to town for supplies, only to be greeted by a smirking Anya and Indra in her driveway.

Anya stood up straight from where she had been leaning against her truck. “Is the bride ready?”

Lexa slowed, realization coming to her all at once. “Now? I have work to--”

“No you don’t.” Clarke had come up behind her and placed a gentle kiss on her cheek. “I’ve got everything taken care of. Go have fun. I’m having my party tonight.”

Lexa was very curious what Clarke’s bachelorette party would look like. “Has Raven told you anything about it yet?”

“Nothing,” Clarke said with a shake of her head. “And I pumped Harper and Octavia for information too. Nothing. I don’t know why they’re being so secretive. I’m sure we’re just going out and getting drunk.”

“Just be safe,” Lexa said as she leaned in for a kiss (which she kept short, considering Anya and Indra were waiting for her).

“I’m very responsible, in case you haven’t noticed.” Clarke frowned slightly. “That wasn’t supposed to sound like a joke. You be safe too.” She looked past Lexa to Anya and Indra. “Bring her back in one piece!” she yelled to them.

“We will,” Indra said as she motioned to the truck. “If we ever get out of here.”

But before Lexa could turn toward the truck, Clarke grabbed her by the collar of her flannel shirt. Lexa found herself being pulled into Clarke’s space, face just inches from Clarke’s. Even though they had been together for so long, even though she got to wake up every morning in Clarke’s arms and kiss her every day, being so close to Clarke, feeling the intensity of her clear gaze, breathing her in, was still enough to make Lexa’s mind go cloudy.

“Make some fun decisions today,” Clarke said, pulling down on her collar and bringing them even closer. “But come back to me safe and sound. We’re getting married the day after tomorrow.”

The thought of it made her almost as weak as Clarke holding her like that, staring at her like that, as if she was the only person in the world. “We’re getting married, Clarke,” was the only thing that Lexa could manage to say.

Clarke just laughed, her gaze flicking down to Lexa’s lips and back up again. “We’ve been engaged for almost a year. You still sound surprised for some reason.”

“It’s just…” Lexa knew she should go, but all she could do was tell her what she was thinking like a confession. “Lately, my life has been so good that I wonder if I’m dreaming all of it.”

Clarke sighed, a soft sigh that Lexa now knew meant that she had said something that Clarke really liked. Lexa was pulled into another kiss by her collar, one that was less innocent than maybe it should have been, considering that her friends were still watching them, but Clarke pushed her away.

“Get out of here before I don’t let you go,” Clarke said before biting her lip. She yelled back to Anya and Indra. “In one very intact, healthy, drop-dead gorgeous piece.”

“Yes ma’am,” Anya said sardonically before climbing into her truck.

Lexa took the middle of the bench seat with Indra on her other side.  “Where are we going exactly?” she asked as the engine roared to life.

Anya looked past her to Indra. “Did you bring the blindfold?”

Lexa gawked at the black bandanna that Indra took from the glove box. “You can’t be serious.”

“Hold still,” Indra demanded in a tone that discouraged argument.

“This is ridiculous,” Lexa muttered before the world went dark.

**********

Lexa heard that they made the transition from dirt roads to paved to dirt again. Not surprisingly, Anya and Indra refused to tell her where they were going or confirm her guesses. Lexa eventually settled back and let the country music and banter of her closest friends take her away. She heard a can opening and felt it being pushed into her hand. The smell of cheap beer mixed with the scent of grass and sage coming in through the open windows, and even if Lexa couldn’t see where she was going, she felt free.

Eventually, the smell around them changed, seemed to contain more moisture. Lexa felt the truck come to a stop and pulled the bandanna from her eyes. She blinked until her eyes adjusted to the brightness.

“You brought me to the lake?” Lexa said in disbelief. “I haven’t been here since…”

“The night before high school graduation,” Anya offered. She got out of the truck and looked back at Lexa. “Are you gonna stay in the truck the whole time or what?”

Lexa rolled her eyes but was instantly relieved. After all of their arguments and protests, Anya and Indra had actually listened to her. They had brought her somewhere peaceful. “I have to say, you surprised me,” she told them, taking in how the clear water reflected the small hills on the other side of the lake. All was silent except for the water lapping on the shore.

“It’s almost like talking about the strippers was a distraction,” Indra said as she took three lawn chairs out of the back of the truck.

“Almost,” Anya added. She pulled the cooler down the truck bed but struggled to take it out.

Rather than watch her throw her back out, Lexa pushed her aside and took the cooler out with barely any effort. She set it up next to the lawn chairs and took out another beer for herself, throwing one to Indra and Anya as well. “This beer is a flashback too. I haven’t had Bud Light since you guys made me drink it with you under the bleachers at high school.”

“Is it as disgusting as you remember?” Indra asked as she took a big swig of her beer.

“Even worse, somehow,” Lexa said, laughing.

“We’ll see if you feel the same way a few beers from now.” Anya had come back from the truck with three fishing poles. “I hope you still like trout.”

Lexa took the offered pole and began securing a lure and hook on the end of the line. “I don’t even have my fishing license this year.”

Anya laughed as she cast her line. “I’ll call the police as soon as we have service again. I might tell them about how you drank in the truck too. So much for not getting arrested during your bachelorette party, Lexa.”

“Clarke will be very disappointed.” Lexa swung her arm, casting the lure far out in the lake as the reel spun. She was out of practice, but it felt good to be fishing again. It wasn’t something she had time to do since she had taken over the ranch on her own.

“You may have to get married in a jail cell,” Indra added. “But I’m sure she’ll understand. She seems to like you quite a bit.”

Anya guffawed and looked past Lexa to Indra. “Do you think? Was it them making out and whispering sweet nothings into each other’s ears as we were trying to drag Lexa out to her own bachelorette party that gave it away?”

Lexa thought of ways to refute that but came up empty. “This is the first night we’re spending apart since she came back from Colorado. We needed to say goodbye.”

“Oh. My. God.” Anya rolled her eyes so hard that Lexa was concerned she might never be able to see again. “Please tell me that Gustus and I have never acted like that.”

“Never.” Indra reeled in her line and cast it out again in a different direction. “And if Marcus and I ever act like that, you have my permission to kill either of us. Or both of us.”

Sighing, Lexa thought she felt a tug on the line, but it vanished. “Do you guys even like your spouses? Or soon-to-be spouse, in your case,” she added to Indra. Even though Indra and Marcus weren’t engaged yet, it was only a matter of time.

“Of course I do,” Anya said. She crushed up her empty beer can and threw it behind herself. (They would pick it up later.) “Gustus is hilarious and hot as fuck and puts up with my shit. But that doesn’t mean I can’t be away from him for a few hours. Fuck, I was about to suggest we get together regularly, just the three of us, no spouses allowed. I need to get away sometimes.”

“Same.” Indra nodded knowingly. “I love Marcus, but a woman needs her space.”

Lexa was still savoring every minute that she got to spend with Clarke, but she couldn’t deny that spending time with just her best friends, just the three of them, was enjoyable. It didn’t mean she loved Clarke any less, far from it. She kept being struck by the thought of whether Clarke would enjoy the lake, whether Lexa should take her out here one day and show it to her, whether Clarke knew how to fish (she doubted it, but maybe Jake had taught her during their camping trips).

Finishing her beer, Lexa contemplated putting it neatly on the ground beside her, but fuck it. She crushed it in her hand and threw it behind her. She was keeping track of how many cans they would need to clean up later. “I just think you guys want an excuse to drink beer and go fishing with me.” She took another beer from the cooler. “And I must say, I think you’re onto something.”

“The bride-to-be is wise.” Indra smirked at her before her fishing line went taut. Indra rose to her feet in a second and fought to keep the pole upright. “I’ve got something!”

Luckily, Indra was much more skilled than Lexa at fishing and had her license to boot. She brought in a small trout that she cleaned while Anya prepared a fire. Before long, they were eating fresh fish that seemed to perfectly complement the cool breeze coming off the lake, the warm sun on their skin, the crisp beer and their easy laughter.

After a few more beers and Lexa catching her first fish in years, Lexa felt herself settling heavily in her lawn chair as the sun dipped lower in the sky. It had been a full day, a happy day, one she would always look back fondly on. But when Anya rose out of her chair beside her and pulled her shirt over her head, Lexa frowned. “What are you doing?”

“Stripping,” Anya responded quickly with an evil grin.

Lexa stared at her in horror. “You’re not going to dance on me, are you.”

Anya just laughed. “You wish you were so lucky.” She began pulling off her shorts as well. “Come on, we’re going for a swim.”

Lexa turned to Indra, hoping to hear another voice of reason in the group, but Indra was already topless. Indra just shrugged at her before downing the rest of her beer and pulling off the rest of her clothes. She stood in front of Lexa proudly, hands on her hips. “If you don’t strip, we’re just going to throw you in fully clothed.”

Lexa knew that they would. She stood and began working on her shirt buttons. “So there are strippers at my party after all.”

“And you’re one of them,” Anya said with mock surprise. She walked to the beach and splashed water back at Lexa. “Now hurry up! This will be your last lake swim as a free woman.”

Maybe it was the beers, but Lexa could only grin at the thought. “I’m getting married the day after tomorrow,” she said.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. You’re lovestruck and we all know it,” Indra muttered as she grabbed Lexa by the arm and pulled her into the water.

**********

Lexa’s hangover was strong enough the next day to make her thankful they hadn’t thrown her party the night before the wedding. Clarke was even worse: sure enough, Raven and the rest of her friends had enjoyed a night out on Polis, complete with pre-drinking and pancakes at Sienne’s diner, followed by dancing and evidently a little too much tequila at the bar. There were reports of arm wrestling and body shots, but Clarke couldn’t remember for sure. While her phone was full of ridiculous selfies with Raven and others in the bar, the rest was luckily left to alcohol-impaired memory.

Still, thanks to their planning and preparations, Lexa and Clarke were able to have a lazy morning in bed, which they both needed, especially given the flurry of family and friends who were arriving in Polis. They had all booked every available hotel room in a 30-mile radius, with a few even choosing to stay at a local campground.

But after they had met several people in Polis and invited Abby to the ranch for the afternoon, they had a few hours back in the cabin to themselves. And even though they had prepared everything and only had to wait for the hour to arrive, Clarke seemed to have other plans.

“Did you confirm with the caterer today?”

“Yes, Clarke. Everything is set up.”

“I can’t remember if the cake is coming at 2 or 3. Is that early enough? What if it comes too late?”

“It won’t. There will be plenty of time.”

“What about--”

Lexa brushed Clarke’s hair away from her eyes, which seemed to distract her enough to stop her mid-sentence. What worked even better was Lexa kissing her, and pulling her shirt over her head, and leading her back to the bedroom. Clarke had no more questions, at least for a few hours.

But later that night, Lexa laid on her side in bed, facing away from Clarke and the bright screen she was holding in her hand. Lexa had been trying to fall asleep for over half an hour, but the light from Clarke’s phone, her more-than-occasional sighs, and Lexa’s own excitement made sleep impossible.

She rolled onto her back and opened her eyes, squinting against the light. “Clarke, it’s late.”

But Clarke kept frowning and didn’t take her eyes off her phone. “There’s a 50% chance of rain tomorrow. 50%. That’s the worst weather forecast in the world. Why do they even bother.”

“There’s always uncertainty in the weather,” Lexa mumbled. She really was tired and knew that the next day would likely be exhausting, as thrilling as it would be to finally marry Clarke.

“I know, but this is ridiculous.” Clarke readjusted herself against her pillow to sit further upright, one of her tanktop straps sliding down her shoulder. “They’re literally saying that there’s a 50% chance that it could rain and a 50% chance it could not. They might as well just admit that they have no fucking idea what’s going to happen.”

Lexa curled her arm around Clarke’s belly, pulling herself closer and burying her head against Clarke’s side. “Either way, it’s going to be fine.”

“But what will we do if it rains? It’s an outdoor wedding. It’ll be terrible.”

“We rented a tent, Clarke.” Even Lexa could barely understand the words that came out of her own mouth with how it was snuggled up against Clarke’s waist. “We’ll just have everyone sit under the tent.”

“Yeah, but it’ll be too crowded. It’ll suck to have three hundred people under that thing.”

“Then we’ll move them the barn.”

“We are not getting married in a barn.”

“It doesn’t matter if it rains,” Lexa said, changing her tactic. “We’ll still be married by the end of it.”

Clarke was silent for a long moment. “Yeah, we will,” she finally said. Lexa felt her shift down beside her and place a kiss onto her lips. “We’re getting married, Lexa.”

“Now you’re the one who sounds surprised,” Lexa murmured against her as she buried herself further into Clarke’s side. “Remember when I proposed to you, and you said yes?”

“Wait, I thought I was the one who proposed to you?”

Lexa opened one eye and found Clarke smirking at her in a beautiful yet infuriating way. She leaned over and kissed her again, Clarke’s lips flowing and parting against hers. “The key point is that we both said yes,” Lexa said.

“Yeah, we did,” Clarke grinned against her lips, pulling her in deeper.

Lexa kissed her languidly before placing her head against Clarke’s chest. She really was tired. “We should sleep. It’ll be a long day tomorrow.”

“And an even longer night,” Clarke said so casually that Lexa almost didn’t register her meaning. She was beginning to drift off when Clarke spoke again, hesitantly. “Are you sure about Dany?”

Lexa could only murmur against her chest. “We can’t have a cow as a flower girl, Clarke.”

“But I’ve already tested it. She can walk in a straight line and lets me put a flower crown on her.”

“Cow poop. At our wedding,” Lexa mumbled.

“We’re already outside,” Clarke countered. “It’ll be easy to clean up. And we wouldn’t be together without her. She should be in our wedding.”

Lexa opened her eyes to see Clarke watching her intently. Her hair was splayed out on the pillow, catching the moonlight. “Do you really want Daenerys in our wedding?”

Clarke looked away. “I may have asked the florist to make a flower crown for her already. But I can cancel it, if you really don’t think Dany should be there.”

In the end, Lexa really just wanted Clarke to be happy. And if she was being completely honest with herself, Daenerys was special to her too. She snuggled back up to Clarke’s chest. “You don’t have to cancel it.”

“Really?” Clarke asked excitedly into her hair. “Because Marcus offered to be on poo duty, and I figure if we put some hay somewhere past the stage, Dany should walk up the aisle no problem, and--”

“Shhhh.” Lexa leaned up and placed a soft kiss on her lips. “I trust that you’ve planned it all thoroughly. I just want to marry you, Clarke. Cow or no cow.”

“We’re getting married…” Clarke said again, almost in awe.

When Lexa felt Clarke’s lips kissing the top of her head, she wondered what it would be like to be kissed by Clarke when she was her wife, and how it could possibly be any sweeter than this.

**********

It wasn’t raining. Although some angry clouds passed that morning while the stage was set up and the chairs arranged, they disappeared and left behind only a brilliant blue sky with the occasional roaming cloud for shade. Despite her strong words last night, Lexa was relieved, if only because she knew Clarke would be overjoyed to not need the tent (or the barn) after all.

Lexa was grateful for all the commotion that afternoon. She wasn’t nervous to marry Clarke--far from it--she just wanted the day to progress smoothly. She wanted it to be beautiful. She wanted to look back on this day and reminisce about all of the rituals and handshakes and hugs and their first dance as a married couple and know that this day, this strange and hectic day, was the formal beginning of their life together.

It all started with Raven bursting into their cabin and screaming at Clarke to come out. Clarke’s mom wasn’t far behind, and although she said it with less inflammatory language, she also demanded that Clarke leave their bedroom to begin her transformation into a bride.

Lexa reluctantly let Clarke go, but Clarke’s suggestive eyebrow raise and reminder that the next time they were in that bedroom, they would married, was enough for Lexa to almost wish they could skip ahead to that part.

But before Lexa could conjecture what was happening in the other room with Raven’s continued occasional shouting and Clarke giggling, Lexa was attacked by her own friends bursting into the room. When she saw the bottles that Anya and Indra held behind their backs, Lexa lifted a finger at them as she backed away.

“I am not going to be drunk for my own wedding,” she said forcefully, but that didn’t stop Indra from arranging three shot glasses on her dresser.

“Relax,” Anya said, pouring them each a shot. “We’re not getting you drunk. This will just take the edge off.”

“What edge,” Lexa grumbled, crossing her arms and glaring at the glasses.

Indra crossed the room and settled her hand onto Lexa’s shoulder, squeezing slightly. “Is that why your shoulder is hunched up to your ear? Because you’re so relaxed ?”

Lexa tried to force the tension out of her body. “I’m not nervous. Why would I be? I love Clarke and want to spend the rest of my life with her. I’m fine.”

“Tell that to your twitching eye.” Anya handed her a shot. “Drink up. You’re not fooling anybody.”

Lexa took the shot but shifted her glare between the two of them the entire time. Still, there was something comforting as the whiskey slid down her throat, even if she wouldn’t admit it to them. “If you’re done forcing shots on me, can we get started?”

They did, and Lexa had to admit, it was kind of fun. She had rented a tux (and Indra drove two and a half hours just to pick it up the day before), but as soon as Lexa put it on, she was certain that she had made the right choice. Especially since she had seen a peek of Clarke’s wedding dress and knew how incredible she was going to look in it. Lexa was going to be Clarke’s match in every way that she could.

Then came the hair. Lexa sat in a chair facing away from her mirror, as Indra placed a number of small braids throughout her thick hair. They talked about Clarke, talked about their upcoming honeymoon (they had decided on Hawaii in the winter months, sometime after the calves were sold), talked about Lexa no longer being a free woman (Lexa knew they didn’t mean it--they all knew that this was the most free Lexa had ever felt before in her life), joked about Indra being the next to fall victim to this thing called marriage (Indra scoffed, but Lexa recognized that far-off look in her eyes).

Anya insisted on doing her makeup even though Lexa was more than capable of doing it on her own. But when they finally spun the chair around and allowed Lexa to look at herself in the mirror, she couldn’t help but stare at herself. It was mostly just eyeliner and mascara, but she looked good . She looked sharp, especially in the tuxedo.

She looked ready to get married.

After one more whiskey shot (“For good luck,” Indra insisted,) she left the bedroom with Anya and Indra and glanced over to the other room, its door still shut. Clarke was laughing inside, light and carefree. Lexa wanted to be with her and be a part of that joy. Clarke’s laughter always drew her in like gravity, but Lexa respected this one archaic wedding tradition and left the cabin without seeing her bride.

The sun hung low in the sky and set a warm hue to the few clouds that still hung in the air. The wedding was set up on the other side of the barn in a large, mostly flat section of lawn that she had mowed earlier that week just for the occasion. And it was packed with people. She knew that she and Clarke may have gone a little overboard in their invitations, but actually seeing them all in one place was shocking. As she gazed from person to person, recognizing everyone either from her extended family (an uncle and cousins who flew in from Utah), the local area (most of the town of Polis), or from Clarke’s friends and family (aunts, uncles, cousins, kids, a huge gaggle), she knew that everyone belonged.

Lexa was trying to force her breathing to even out when Anya ran back from the cabin in her bridesmaid dress (it was a dark purple and really quite attractive). “Are you ready?” Anya asked, clasping Lexa’s shoulder reassuringly.

Lexa suddenly found that she couldn’t speak. She nodded once and tried to swallow down her nerves.

She was marrying Clarke…!

The music began, an acoustic guitar medley of Pachelbel's canon. Clarke had suggested the song, and Lexa had suggested the instrument. And as Lexa let out a shaky breath, she decided it was perfect.

And then it was happening. Abby, wearing a beautiful flowing dress, walked regally up the aisle and took her seat in the front row. Anya and Indra followed, then Raven and Harper, and they all took their places on stage.

Lexa got her cue, and she began walking slowly up the aisle by herself. She wished her parents could be there to walk her down the aisle, one on each arm, holding her close until the very last moment as they sent her forward to the stage. She knew they would have loved Clarke, knew they would have admired her strength and tenacity. Lexa could almost feel them at her side as she completed the walk down the aisle. When she settled in her place beside Anya and Indra on the stage, she looked to the two empty chairs in the front row that she had left reserved for her parents. They were there with her, just like Jake was, in the chair they left for him as well.

The minister stood in the middle beside Lexa and smiled at her. He had officiated practically every wedding in Polis for the last 40 years, including Anya’s marriage to Gustus the year before. He had seen more commitments made than anyone she knew.

When Daenerys began walking up the aisle, Lexa could only smile at the audible gasp from the crowd. But Daenerys, in her crown of purple dahlias, passed between the rows of seats as if there was no more natural thing in the world than for a cow to be a flower girl. Her calf trotted along after her, mooing softly.

But as Marcus ushered Daenerys and her calf toward the barn, Lexa clasped her hands in front of herself. She felt a trickle of perspiration sliding down her back, which she knew wasn’t caused by the summer heat.

Clarke was about to appear.

When she did, time stood still. Everyone in the audience was on their feet and gazed back in wonder. No one moved. The music disappeared to Lexa’s ears. The breeze vanished. In that moment, all that existed was Clarke.

Clarke wore a long white gown that hugged her curves beautifully and flowed all the way to the ground, her feet peeking out of the fabric with every step. Her hair was put up into an elaborate collection of curls that allowed her shoulders and neck to be on full display. But it was her smile that struck Lexa, froze her in place, made her jaw drop. That steady smile, those blue eyes that hardly left Lexa’s, those eyes that were a portal to Clarke’s soul, and that right now held only the deepest love.

Lexa knew that Clarke would have walked up with her father if she could. That absence stung Clarke as much as Lexa missing her own parents. But Clarke’s stride was strong, despite the heels and the uneven ground. She was confident, and assured, and Lexa couldn’t look away.

When Clarke stepped up onto the stage, Lexa was even more enamored. Clarke’s dark makeup perfectly contrasted against her bright eyes. But if Lexa was overwhelmed, she thought Clarke might be too, how her gaze flickered across Lexa, took in the tuxedo and her braids and her lips.

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today…”

Lexa tried to listen to the minister, she really did. But it was like a roar was in her ears, tied directly to her heartbeat, or Clarke’s, or maybe both. She could only focus on the woman in front of her, on her hair practically sparkling in the sun.

When the minister asked her for her vows, Lexa tried to collect herself. She suddenly realized that tears were streaming silently down her cheeks, and she had no idea when that had started. She took Clarke’s hands in hers, breathed in deep, let it out slowly, hoped that her voice wouldn’t crack.

Lexa looked into Clarke’s eyes and gathered strength from their support. “I, Lexa, offer myself wholly and without hesitation to you, Clarke.”

Her heartbeat was thumping in her ears, but Clarke’s small smile urged Lexa on. “You inspire me every day with your compassion, your creativity, and your zeal for life. I promise to support your dreams, to offer encouragement and guidance, and to try to make you as happy as you have made me. We’ve already conquered mountains together, and I have full faith that we’ll be able to conquer whatever may come next, if only we stand together. You are the love of my life, and I am honored to get to spend the rest of it with you.”

Clarke looked at her intently as her lips parted open. She began her vows with a deep breath of her own. “I, Clarke, want nothing more than to spend the rest of my life with you, Lexa.” Although she hadn’t cried a single tear yet (to Lexa’s several that were just beginning to dry on her cheeks), Clarke’s face suddenly scrunched up, and she waved her eyes with a hand. “Sorry,” she said, Lexa thought both to her and to everyone in the crowd. “I really thought I could keep it together better than this.”

Raven stepped forward from the side of the stage and handed her a tissue that she had tucked somewhere in her bridesmaid dress. “You got this, Griffin,” she said, drawing out even more chuckles from the audience.

But the sight of Clarke’s tears had Lexa crying all over again. She took Clarke’s waving hand into hers again. “You’re doing great, Clarke,” Lexa tried to encourage, even though her own voice was unsteady.

Clarke laughed and settled her wet eyes back on Lexa. She just breathed for a few seconds and seemed to calm down, her gaze refocusing on Lexa. “I believe that together, we help each other be better than we could ever be on our own. I promise to always help you reach higher, ride farther, and laugh harder. I also promise to feed you, because you still can’t cook worth a damn.” Clarke beamed at her as the laughter from the crowd died down. “And I promise to love you, to care for you, to listen to you and support you, for the rest of my life.”

The minister looked between the two of them as he waved one of Lexa’s young cousins forward, who carried the rings forward to the minister. “Rings are a symbol of love and devotion,” the minister began. “They are circular, continuous, never-ending, just as your love for each other will continue on forever. They are resilient, strong, durable, and will weather the fair days and the storms and everything in between. These rings are a symbol and constant reminder of your love for each other.”

Lexa felt like she was in a daze as she took the ring from him and slipped it onto Clarke’s finger. Clarke watched her with rapt attention, squeezing her hands when Lexa was finished. Curls of her hair fluttered in the breeze and caressed her cheeks, and Lexa thought that Clarke had never looked more beautiful. She repeated after the minister and let the words sink into her soul. “Please wear this ring as a symbol of my love for you. A love that is brighter than the sun, stronger than iron, more vast than the sea. I promise to love you today, tomorrow, and forever.”

Then, Lexa felt Clarke placing the ring onto her own finger. Lexa gazed down at it in wonder, the gold glistening in the late afternoon sunlight. Clarke held onto her hands almost desperately as she repeated the same vow, her voice quivering but beautiful.

The minister’s smile passed between them, and his words boomed across the gathering. “By the authority vested in me in the state of Montana, I now pronounce you partners for life. You may now kiss the bride.”

It was done. It was really done. At long last, Lexa would be able to call Clarke her wife. Lexa vaguely heard applause and cheering and even an “Atta girl, Griffin!” from the audience, but she was too focused on Clarke curling her hands around the back of her neck and pulling her close. It was their first kiss as a married couple, their first kiss of many that would lead them into the rest of their lives together. Lexa could have stayed there forever, holding and being held by Clarke, feeling her lips and how they were curled back into a smile that was no doubt stunning because it was Clarke’s. But she suddenly became aware of the hundreds of people watching them and pulled away, Clarke’s smile even more brilliant than she had imagined.

The cheering and clapping continued as they pulled apart and the minister announced them as “the newly married couple, Clarke and Lexa.” She spared a brief glance to their friends and family but felt drawn back in by Clarke’s presence.

“Shall we, my wife?” Lexa asked as she extended her arm out to her.

Clarke placed her hand on Lexa’s arm and gave her a look that, even with the still lingering tears, was that intoxicating mix of gorgeous and sexy that only she could pull off. “I really like the sound of you calling me that, Mrs. Woods.”

But Lexa really couldn’t resist. She kissed Clarke once more before leading her down the aisle and toward the reception area, Anya and Raven and Abby and Indra and a dozen more gathering around them in a huddle and cheering after them.

**********

It was an unforgettable evening. The sky was lit a marvelous pink as the sun dipped below the horizon, and then fairy lights set a warm glow to the reception tent, tables, and dancing area. Beer and wine poured freely as Lexa and Clarke made the rounds and visited everyone who had taken the time to celebrate with them that day. They were given more well-wishes and marriage advice (some of questionable quality) to last them a lifetime. The cake was cut, and Clarke took some of the icing and dabbed it onto Lexa’s nose. “Just like the flour at Thanksgiving,” she said with a smile.

After they had roamed from table to table long enough, Lexa and Clarke settled down at their own, surrounded by their closest friends and family. Lexa had her arm around Clarke’s very bare, very attractive shoulders, and she couldn’t help but run her fingers over her soft skin. The closeness had been at Clarke’s insistence, actually, since it had cooled off considerably since sunset, and Lexa had been more than happy to help in whatever way she could (especially if it meant slinging an arm around her).

Somehow, the night got even better when their friends and family began raising their wine glasses in toasts. Abby set the bar high with her tear-filled congratulations. “I never imagined my little girl would get married on a ranch, but I couldn’t be prouder of you. And I know Jake would be too.”

Clarke wiped a tear from her cheek before blowing a kiss to her mom at the other end of the table.

Anya was next. “The thing is,” she began, “I can take credit for Lexa and Clarke meeting in the first place. I don’t want to call myself a matchmaker, but, well…” She gestured toward the two of them. “The evidence speaks for itself.”

Then there was Raven, giving a much-cleansed retelling of her phone conversations with Clarke about Lexa when she had first arrived on the ranch, and how smitten Clarke had been from the very beginning. Indra, who had been entertained by Lexa giving Clarke more and more intense heart eyes at every dinner and game night she attended. Harper, who said that she knew when Clarke got a text from Lexa because her entire face lit up. Gustus, who knew something was going on between Lexa and Clarke when Lexa ordered something other than whiskey at his bar.

Even Sienne had something to share. “I know I may have overheard some things that I shouldn’t have,” she said, “but really, I’m just so happy that Lexa found someone as amazing as Clarke.”

But soon, the toasts were complete, everyone’s bellies were stuffed, and the band began to play. Lexa stood and straightened her tuxedo jacket before holding her hand out to Clarke. “May I have this dance?” she asked her, straight-faced.

“The honor is all mine,” Clarke said grandly, unable to hold back her smile, as she took her hand.

Lexa led her out to the empty dance floor. They had the privilege of the first dance, after all. The band transitioned to the song that she and Clarke had chosen, the one that Clarke had sung on that first night when Lexa had finally admitted that Clarke was far more than just her ranch hand.

Lexa placed her hand on the small of Clarke’s back and pulled her in close. She held her other hand to the side and rocked her slowly back and forth. In heels, Clarke was a little bit taller than her, but Lexa didn’t mind having to look up at her. She always looked up to Clarke, no matter what.

I wanna sweep you off your feet tonight

I wanna love you and hold you tight

“I can’t believe you let me choose this song,” Clarke said, as she nuzzled her head against Lexa’s.

Spin you ‘round on some old dance floor

Pretend like we never met before for fun

“Why wouldn’t I?” Lexa said in her ear. “Every time I hear it, I remember the sight of you on that stage and how you looked at me while you sang.” She changed her footing, guiding Clarke around in a slow circle. “And how you went around the bar and drank everyone’s beer.”

“Not everyone’s,” Clarke insisted, but she settled further into Lexa’s arms. “I love you.”

“I love you too, Clarke.”

Cause you’re the one I want, you’re the one I need

Baby, if I was a king, you would be my queen

As soon as the chorus started, Lexa pushed into Clarke’s body and spun her by the hand, twirling her in a circle. Clarke’s surprised laughter inspired Lexa to add a couple of unnecessary spins just for fun.

You’re the rock in my roll, you’re good for my soul, it’s true

I’m head over boots for you.

When Clarke returned to her arms, a little breathless, Lexa began moving them across the dance floor. Clarke was uncertain in her arms, but Lexa was comfortable enough to be able to lead her.

“OK, I knew about the line dancing, but where the hell did this come from?” Clarke asked before giving out a little shriek as Lexa dipped her.

“The internet is a wonderful thing, Clarke.” Lexa spun her around and around until Clarke burst out laughing.

But Lexa slowed them down again for the next verse. She placed both of her hands on Clarke’s hips, swaying side to side, as she softly sang along with the band. “ The way you sparkle like a diamond ring. Maybe one day we can make it a thing.”

Grinning, Clarke joined her in singing. “ Test time and grow old together. Rock in our chairs and talk about the weather, yeah.”

Clarke glanced around the crowd that was surrounding the dance floor and gestured for them to join in. Several couples came onto the floor--Raven and Octavia, Anya and Gustus, Indra and Marcus, Harper and Zoe--and many voices joined in with the band, some clear and some a little drunken.

“‘Cause you’re the one I want, you’re the one I need

Baby, if I was a king, you would be my queen

You’re the rock in my roll, you’re good for my soul, it’s true.”

Lexa smiled as Clarke leaned in and sang the last words of the chorus against her lips. “ I’m head over boots for you.

And then Clarke was kissing her, and Lexa felt herself swaying on the dance floor for a different reason. Eventually, clapping and cheering broke out all around, and Lexa could only hold Clarke tighter as they both smiled into the kiss.

Chapter Text

Clarke shifted in her seat for what she knew was the thousandth time. She wasn’t physically uncomfortable, especially not in their new truck that she and Lexa had finally purchased (not to replace Lexa’s old truck, of course). But Clarke couldn’t stay still as the miles disappeared under the truck tires and they grew closer and closer to the person who might change the rest of their lives forever.

Unprompted, Lexa’s hand came to rest on her fidgeting thigh. Clarke heaved out a sigh as she looked over to her. Lexa spared her a glance and a small smile before she turned back to the country highway that wove between grass-covered hills.

“I’m sorry,” Clarke said, maybe also for the thousandth time. But she couldn’t help being nervous, couldn’t help wondering if they were doing the right thing, couldn’t help running through all of the scenarios in her head, couldn’t help wondering if this was the day they would become parents…

“You don’t have to be sorry, Clarke.” Lexa ran a thumb softly along her leg, which never failed to bring a small amount of comfort to her. “This could be one of the most important days of our life together.”

Clarke knew Lexa meant the best, but she ran her hands over her face and groaned. “I don’t know if that helps.”

“I’m nervous too.” Lexa looked back over to her, looking anything but. Her face was serene and perfectly framed by her hair pulled behind her head in a loose braid.  

Clarke looked down at Lexa’s hand and intertwined their fingers together. It was such a small thing, to hold hands with her wife, to feel that little bit of touch and comfort, and yet Clarke relied on it maybe more than she should have. Lexa was a stabilizing force in her life, less prone to over-analyzing and indulging her anxieties. For Lexa, when something was settled in her mind, she could move on and focus on the next issue. Clarke envied her for it, even as she was grateful that Lexa provided that balance for her.

Because that balance had proven even more important since they had gotten married. They juggled the ranch and Clarke’s new mobile veterinary practice as best they could, and even managed to take a week off in December for a whirlwind honeymoon to Hawaii. (Clarke would never get over the look and feel of Lexa in a bikini.) They truly were developing into partners for life, sharing ideas, sharing workloads, sharing dreams. And now especially, on their way to what Clarke cringed to think was called an “adoption party,” Clarke was able to share her fears and reservations.

It had been an intense last year. She and Lexa had decided that it was finally time for them to start a family together, besides Daenerys and the rest of the cattle, but the process was time-consuming and arduous. They conducted their own research, connected with Child and Family Services, attended orientation and weekly classes on the adoption process, arranged for their home to be inspected… it was overwhelming.

But Clarke was reassured they were making the right choice, time and time again. Every time they invited a new family to stay with them during the summer, she and Lexa shared a look as the children gazed up at the cattle in wonder. Every time Lexa taught another child the basics of riding a horse, Clarke could only smile. And every time Clarke found herself daydreaming about the simple things, like having dinner with Lexa and their child, helping them with their homework, raising a child who didn’t have to worry about the roof over their head over whether or not their parents loved them, she knew: raising a family with Lexa was what she wanted.

“Do you think it’ll be weird?” Clarke heard herself asking again. Her filter with Lexa had dissipated long ago. She knew she didn’t have to fear Lexa thinking less of her, or looking down on her. “I can’t help but feel like we’re going to a market for children.”

“It might be strange,” Lexa conceded. Clarke saw a shadow of her own anxiety in Lexa’s eyes. “I imagine it’s awkward for the children too. But this is the way it works, Clarke. Either this, or we read descriptions of children online. At least this way, we get to meet them in person.”

“I know. You’re right.” Clarke rubbed her eyes, wishing that they could skip ahead to the part where they were a family. “I just… what do we talk about? What do we say to them? ‘Hey, kid. Do you want to live with us for the rest of your childhood and accept our love and support forever?’”

“Maybe you shouldn’t say it like that,” Lexa said, squeezing Clarke’s hand slightly. “Just pretend they’re kids on the ranch that you’re meeting for the first time. Encourage them to talk about themselves. Let them know that you’re interested. Make them feel safe.”

“Ugh, you make it sound so easy.” Clarke took a deep breath and let it out slowly.  “I’m glad I’m doing this with you. Starting a family. Maybe starting a family.”

“It may not be today, but we will.” Lexa spoke so confidently. “When the time’s right.”

Clarke began to feel a little more of that confidence too. She leaned over and placed a kiss on Lexa’s cheek before turning up the radio a little louder, letting the crackling country tunes bring them the rest of the way.

**********

It was a little weird, there was no getting around it. She and Lexa walked around the community center hand-in-hand and watched the children getting their faces painted, making crafts, playing with train sets and dolls. They approached social workers and chatted with a few children, Lexa taking the lead, as she asked them about whatever they were playing or drawing.

But when Clarke saw a boy with brown hair, maybe eight years old, playing with Lego’s by himself at a table, she wrapped her arm around Lexa’s waist. She couldn’t take her eyes off of him. “Can we go talk to him?” she whispered.

Lexa watched him for a long moment before leading them over to his table. He looked up at them with a mixture of curiosity and resignation. “Do you mind if we play Lego’s with you?” Lexa asked, as soft and encouraging as could be. The boy just nodded, his hair bobbing down into his eyes. “What’s your name?” Lexa asked.

“Aden,” the boy answered, continuing to place the pieces together on the table.

Clarke tried her best to make small-talk and commented on Aden’s building, all the while making her own creation: a ridiculously tall structure that was at risk of falling over at any moment.

Finally, Aden looked over to it, clearly curious. “What are you making?”

“This?” Clarke motioned at her tower, a little pleased with herself. “Just the tallest skyscraper in the world. Unfortunately, there’s about to be an earthquake.”

“Really?” Aden’s eyes lit up a little. “Can I help?”

Together, they placed a few more bricks onto the structure, but it was so unsteady that it crashed off the table and burst into pieces on the floor. Everyone in the room looked over to them (many of the social workers with disapproving eyes), but Clarke could only focus on Aden’s smile--the first she had seen from him since they had walked in.

It only took the three of them a few minutes to clean up the pieces and return them to the bucket, but the ice--just like Clarke’s skyscraper--had broken. Lexa asked him about what he was making (a secret Resistance base with Rey and Finn, he said), what he liked to do (run and draw), whether he enjoyed school (recess and science class).

But after a while, Lexa motioned to her that they should leave. Clarke almost argued, but she remembered what they had been told: not to spend too much time with any one child, to prevent anyone from getting too attached and have too high of expectations.

Lexa handed Aden what she had been working on. “It was really nice to meet you, Aden. Could you take care of my spaceship for me?”

Aden just nodded, and Clarke swore that Aden watched them all the way to the door.

After they stepped outside, Clarke leaned against the side of the building, the autumn breeze ripping through the thin layer of her jacket. “I don’t think I can talk to any more children today,” she said, thinking again and again about Aden’s smile when they had knocked over her Lego’s.

“Because we found our son.”

Clarke’s eyes shot up to find Lexa’s, which were already filling with tears. Without delay, Clarke took Lexa into her arms and held her like she was the only thing keeping her on earth. “Oh my God, I thought so too. We only talked with him for a few minutes…”

“I know.”

“And we barely talked about anything important…”

“That’s true.”

“But…”

Lexa backed away from her just enough to set her green eyes on her, so clear despite the tears gathering in them. She nodded, confirming what Clarke felt in her gut.

“That’s our son,” Clarke said before letting herself cry at the relief of it.

**********

They had been staring at Lexa’s cell phone on the table for a solid minute.

“He should be in his office now,” Clarke reminded her gently.

Lexa nodded slowly, still not taking her eyes from the phone. “Are we ready, Clarke?”

The question took Clarke by surprise. “Yes, definitely. We’ve been saving for years. We’ve figured out how to adjust our work around school schedules and have a plan for the summer. We’ve talked about what kind of parents we want to be, how we’re going to avoid the mistakes that happened in our own childhoods…” Clarke trailed off at Lexa’s growing frown.

“I know,” Lexa said, before finally looking up into Clarke’s eyes. “But we’re ready, right?”

The change in emphasis made Clarke understand what she was getting at. “I love you, Lexa. I plan on spending the rest of my life with you. I think we’re as ready as any new parents can be. I know it’s not going to be easy, especially at first, but I think we know how to communicate with each other. We know how each other works, how each other thinks….” Clarke gave her a small smile. “At least for the most part. I still don’t get why you like Toby Keith so much.”

Finally, Lexa smiled too, just a little. “He’s a legend, Clarke.” But she looked a little calmer.

“I think you’re going to be a great momma.” Clarke held her hands face-up on the table until Lexa took them. And I’m going to… well, I’m going to do my best.”

“You’re going to do great,” Lexa said immediately. “And I’m not just saying that because I love you.”

“Well then.” Clarke freed one of her hands and pushed the cell phone towards Lexa. “I’m ready if you are.”

Once Lexa finally dialed the number, they talked with the social worker for over an hour.

Mostly, they learned all about Aden’s background: how his father had never even met Aden; how his mother drifted in and out of his life; how he had been with relatives or in the foster system ever since he was three years old; how he had moved from house to house, family to family, leaving friends and having to make new ones, becoming quieter as the years wore on. The social worker reminded them that they would need to foster Aden first, and then, maybe, eventually, adopt him.

It only solidified in Clarke’s mind--and Lexa’s too--that Aden needed a home. A forever home.

Their home.

Luckily, the following day, they received a call that said the feeling was mutual: Aden had requested to see them again as well. They made the trip to Billings again to spend the day with him and his foster family.

The next month, they were able to pick Aden up and have him spend the weekend with them. Even though he had grown up in Billings, he had never been on a ranch before. He had never seen horses or cows or, Clarke suspected, felt like such a part of the neverending grassland and open skies. Even though it was approaching winter during his visit, he wanted to spend all of their time outdoors. They bundled him up in a coat that was much too big for him, but he didn’t seem to mind. It was a time of discovery, with Lexa picking Aden up and placing him on Daenerys’ back. It was safer for him to ride her than to try to fit into an adult-sized saddle on a horse. But he asked about riding a horse, more than once, and Lexa promised him that they would see about getting him a child-sized saddle. Clarke had never seen someone look so hopeful and yet so cautious at the same time.

(But as exciting as experiencing the ranch was, Clarke suspected it was much more than the animals that had Aden beginning to open up to them. She thought he felt the connection between them just as much as she did, even though something in his smile still held back.)

The wheels of bureaucracy turned slowly. They filed paperwork to foster Aden until the adoption paperwork was complete, but even that took months to process. They continued spending weekends with Aden in Billings and brought him up to the ranch when they could. Aden asked them, time and time again, if they were going to be another foster family. When she and Lexa, separately and together, told him they wanted him to become part of their permanent family, if that’s what he wanted too, he just frowned. Clarke wanted to know what was going through his head, but she knew he would tell them when he was ready.

Finally, with the frigid winter wind howling and the snow drifting, Aden was able to move into their home. He brought his one suitcase of possessions and took what had been Clarke’s room, forever ago. They took him shopping for the bedspread he wanted, posters of things he was interested in (Star Wars and dinosaurs), bought him some new clothes for school, and tried to give him space to settle in while still letting him know that they were there for him and always would be.

For Clarke, she found that no amount of research or classes or training could prepare her for what it was actually like to have Aden in their lives. It was hard: it was a flurry of purchases and helping Aden adjust to (yet another) elementary school; it was changing routines to incorporate dropping off and picking up Aden from school; it was putting Aden first, even when Clarke was tired or didn’t feel like it; it was wanting to see Aden succeed but sometimes wondering if he even wanted to be there with them.

But there was also hope: the small smile Aden would give her when she started playing one of his favorite shows on TV, as if he were surprised that she remembered; how he gazed up in awe at the horses; how he giggled when Lexa lifted him up into the saddle (a proper children’s saddle with a large pommel and adjustable stirrups); how Aden began hugging them, unprompted, before he went to school every morning.

Clarke couldn’t imagine it was easy for him. He had already experienced so much hardship with his biological family and been cycled through so many foster families. Did he expect Clarke and Lexa to stick around? Or did he just see them as another couple who said they loved him then vanished like all the others did?

That’s probably why, when they broke the news about the adoption paperwork being completed, he reacted the way he did.

The first hint of spring was in the air. Clarke had just finished her visit to another ranch and ensured the cows there were healthy and ready to give birth. She tried to act natural in the car with Aden, asking him about his day and checking up on one of his classmates, Ontari, who he had mentioned had teased him the week before. Clarke had to grip the steering wheel tighter to avoid telling him, to have the news spill out of her and keep Aden’s reaction, selfishly, all to herself. But she and Lexa had agreed that it would be better back at the ranch with Lexa present. Still, Clarke drove a little faster than she should have back home, the truck flying over the dips and curves of the snowy dirt road.

Lexa was waiting for them when they arrived, obviously just returned from the pastures, with her cowboy hat still atop her head and her flannel shirt poking out from beneath her Carhartt jacket. Aden was unbuckled before they were even to a full stop. He ran out of the truck and wrapped his arms around Lexa’s waist tightly. Clarke had to remind herself that she needed to get out of the truck too and couldn’t just stare at the loves of her life like that forever. But when Lexa took off her cowboy hat and placed it on Aden’s head, the hat covering half of his face, and he tipped it backward to be able to look back to the truck and beam at her like Lexa had given him the best gift of all, Clarke thought she might cry.

(But she didn’t. Not yet. She would allow herself later.)

Once they had settled inside, taken off layers, settled hats next to the door, and put down book bags, Clarke shared a long look with Lexa. It was finally time.

Lexa cleared her throat and sat down at the table. “Could you come here, Aden?”

Aden picked up on the gravity in her voice immediately. He settled across from her at the table, looking between her and Clarke with something Clarke didn’t like in his eyes. (Was it apprehension? Fear?) “What is it?” he asked, very calmly, or even bravely.

Clarke sat down as well, took Lexa’s hand beneath the table. Lexa squeezed it, giving her the go-ahead, and Clarke felt her mouth go dry. She tried to smile, but she was afraid that she was so nervous that it wouldn’t look convincing. “We got a letter from Child and Family Services. They said that your adoption paperwork has been finalized.”

Aden just stared at her, and Clarke couldn’t handle the uncertainty in his eyes. He seemed to have heard her, understood her, but he remained silent.

But Clarke felt this too strongly for it not to be right. She glanced to Lexa and gathered strength from her slight, almost imperceptible nod. “We can adopt you, Aden,” Clarke said. “Officially. If that’s what you want.”

Lexa leaned forward and rested her elbows on the table, her eyes softening as she searched Aden’s face. “Would you like to be our son?”

Aden’s mouth gaped, his gaze flicked between the two of them, and his brow furrowed. Clarke watched him anxiously, waited impatiently, ran every scenario through her mind and what she would say and do.

But what she could never have anticipated was that Aden would jump to his feet and run out the front door without a word.

She and Lexa stared at each other in the sudden silence that filled the cabin after the door slammed behind him. “Why… what… Is that a no?” Clarke trailed off, her mind seeming to short-circuit.

“Let me talk to him.” Lexa got up with a determined set to her jaw and and kissed the top of Clarke’s head. Clarke made to follow her, but Lexa placed a hand on her shoulder. “Trust me,” Lexa said. She took her jacket from the wall, and Aden’s too, and left out the door.

Clarke sat alone in the kitchen, not knowing what else to do. She couldn’t focus on anything. What if he really did say no? What if he chose to leave their lives forever and move on to another family? Whatever his choice, Clarke knew she had to respect it, but how could she recover if he didn’t want to be their son…

Some time later, Clarke didn’t know how much later, Lexa led Aden in by the hand. Both of their cheeks were streaked with tears, and when Aden looked at her, he sniffled and wiped his cheek with the back of his hand. He came forward and wrapped his arms around her waist as she sat in the chair, but Clarke knelt down on the ground in front of him and hugged him back just as fiercely.

“Thank you, Mommy,” he whispered to her in between sniffles.

Clarke could only run her hand through his short brown hair and share a look with Lexa over his shoulder. Her bright eyes told Clarke everything she needed to know. She clutched Aden all the closer, tucked her chin against his back, calmed him with her hand against his back.

“You’re home, Aden,” she told him, looking back up to Lexa. “And we’re not ever going to let you go.”

**********

Aden went to bed early that night--Clarke thought he was more emotionally than physically exhausted. And how could she blame him? He had just found out, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that she and Lexa were his new family.

To be honest, Clarke was exhausted too. It was a lot to take in, and knowing how difficult this situation was for Aden only drained her more. When Lexa took her by the hand and led her back to their bedroom later that night, Clarke went willingly. She didn’t know what she needed, didn’t even know what to ask for, but Lexa laid down beside her and encircled Clarke in her arms. As it turned out, that was exactly what she needed.

“Is he going to be OK?” Clarke asked into the deep silence of night. She clung onto Lexa’s hands around her chest. They helped to ground her, to keep her thoughts from swirling into a dense, convoluted mess.

“I think this is the best he’s ever been.” Lexa kissed the back of her neck softly before resting her cheek against Clarke’s shoulder. “He’s never felt secure before, not with his mother, his uncle, or any of his foster families. This is the first time he thinks, maybe, someone won’t leave him or force him away.”

Clarke turned onto her back and looked up at Lexa in the dim light of their bedroom, illuminated only by the moonlight streaming in through the window. Lexa watched her patiently, peacefully, her hand sliding down to Clarke’s waist. “I can’t even imagine,” Clarke said. “Even after my dad died, and my mom started working like crazy and was never around, I always knew that she was there . That she would take care of me.” Clarke shook her head. “How does a little boy survive without knowing that? Without knowing that someone loves him and will take care of him?”

Lexa leaned down and kissed her temple. “He may only be eight, but he’s strong, Clarke. Strong, but vulnerable. He was overwhelmed earlier, but once he calmed down, he told me everything. He’s not afraid to share what he’s feeling when he feels safe.”

Smiling up at her, Clarke pulled Lexa down by her neck for a lingering kiss. “I love that our son can share like that with you.”

“He’ll want to talk about it with you too.” She began tracing patterns across Clarke’s bare stomach, along her sides. “He called you Mommy, earlier.”

“I know,” Clarke said, beaming over at her. “It’s the first time he’s called me that.”

Lexa rested her head against Clarke’s chest and hummed deep in her throat. “He called me Momma out on the porch. I think that was the only thing holding him back. He didn’t know for sure if we were going to stay.”

“But he does now?” Clarke asked gently. She felt Lexa smiling against her skin.

“Ask him yourself,” Lexa said, before they let the warmth and the silence carry them away into sleep.

**********

She did, the next morning when she drove him to school. He stared groggily out the window, and Clarke wondered how much sleep he had gotten the night before.

“Excited for your first day as an official member of the Woods clan?” Clarke asked him with a playful smile. They had decided that Aden should take Lexa’s last name, since it held so much clout in the community.

To her surprise, Aden looked down sheepishly into his own lap. “Is it OK if I tell people?”

“Of course!” Clarke turned the corner off of the dirt road and onto the paved one that would take them to his elementary school. “You can brag about it to everybody. Your momma’s pretty well known around here. They’ll all be jealous that you get to be her son.”

“They know about you too,” Aden said, looking over at her seriously. “They say you fix up their animals when they’re sick. Brandon said you made his dog walk again.”

Clarke remembered that case well. It hadn’t been an easy fix for the cyst on the dog’s leg. “Who’s Brandon? Is he a friend of yours?”

Aden frowned a little. “I think so.”

“I bet you he is, if he’s telling you about his dog.” Clarke pulled into the elementary school into a line of trucks with other parents and students getting dropped off. “Would you like to invite him over one day? Show him the cattle and horses?”

Aden, in the process of picking up his book bag, stared over at her in shock. “What? Really?”

“Sure!” Clarke wondered why Aden seemed so surprised by the offer, but then, maybe he hadn’t been allowed to have friends over in the past. Or maybe he hadn’t even allowed himself to make friends, since all of his previous families had been so temporary. The thought sent a pang of hurt through her, and a wave of gratitude that, at long last, Aden had the chance to be a normal kid who could hang out with his friends at home.

“I’ll tell you what,” Clarke said, as she pointed at his book bag. “You got any paper in there?”

Aden nodded, unzipping the bag and handing her a notebook.

Clarke wrote down her phone number and handed it back to him. “Just give that number to Brandon to give to his mom, and we’ll see about Brandon coming after school one day. Does that sound good?”

Aden’s grip on the notebook tightened, as if he were afraid that it might fly away. “Can I ask other people too? Like Lucas and Stephanie and Kyle?”

“Ask away, kiddo.” Clarke leaned across and ruffled his hair. “It’s your home too, you know. And this is your school, and these kids are your friends. Momma and I want you to be happy, and we know that means hanging out with your friends. Just not too many at once. Our house isn’t big enough to have your entire class over.”

Clarke glanced over to the clock. “Oh my God, you have one minute to get to class.” She leaned over and zipped up his jacket before kissing his temple. “Have a good day, Aden. I love you.”

Aden looked at her with maybe the largest smile she had ever seen on him before bounding away across the sidewalk. She could see now how he had held back from settling in, how reserved he had been in making friends and allowing himself to think, for more than a moment, that this could really be his home.

But now that he understood, or at least was beginning to understand, Clarke thought that she might be seeing more of his big smiles.

**********

One spring day, Clarke was exhausted. She had been helping another ranch’s cows give birth to calves all day and ran into complications with more than a few. When she finally pulled into the ranch, it was already getting dark and she was starving and in need of some quality time in front of the television.

Which was to say that she was completely unprepared for the dog lying on the porch.

The dog--a pitbull mix of some kind, with short brown fur and a patch of white around one eyes--only lifted its head to look at her as she approached, then rested its head back onto the wooden planks of the porch.

Before Clarke could investigate further, Aden came running out of the cabin and wrapped his arms around her waist. “You’re home!” he said with so much excitement that Clarke could still hardly believe the difference between him now and when they had first met him in Billings.

She patted his back before crouching down beside him and glancing over to the dog. It had gotten to its feet and padded over to Aden, puttings its head into his hand looking for a scratch.

“Um, there’s a dog on our porch” Clarke said, just as Lexa came out of the cabin with a guilty expression. She redirected her attention to Lexa, raising an eyebrow. “Why is there a dog on our porch?”

But Aden answered instead as he began petting the dog with enthusiasm. The dog practically grinned up at him. “I found her at school! She was all alone, and I didn’t know who her owner was, and she looked sad, so we brought her home.”

Clarke continued staring hard at Lexa, until Lexa’s cheeks began to heat.

Lexa knelt down beside the dog too and began scratching her ear. Clarke denied how cute it was. “She’s not wearing a collar, otherwise I would have called her owner,” Lexa said calmly. ”But we couldn’t leave her at the school. It’s supposed to get cold tonight, and she doesn’t have shelter there.”

“She can stay in my room!” Aden said excitedly, as the dog lay down again and exposed her belly for petting.

But Clarke only saw the dog’s line of pink, swollen nipples. “You know she’s pregnant, right?”

Lexa’s eyes went wide as she analyzed the dog’s underbelly. “I was wondering.”

“And she’s far along, too.” Clarke ran a hand over the dog’s swollen abdomen. “I wouldn’t say it’ll be more than a week.”

“A week until what?” Aden asked with curiosity as he looked up at her. Clarke could see the moment realization hit him. “Until puppies?!” If he had been excited before, it was nothing to the amazement she saw in his eyes now. He looked back and forth between them. “Can we keep them?”

Clarke just gave Lexa a meaningful look-- look what you’ve done .

Lexa cleared her throat. “We’ll need to keep looking for the dog’s owner. We don’t want to take a family’s dog, now do we? Think about how sad those kids are right now, not knowing where their dog is.”

Aden ran it through his mind for a long moment before finally shaking his head. “No, I don’t want to make other kids sad.”

“So we’re going to put up fliers around town,” Lexa continued, glancing over to Clarke. “Just like we talked about. And go door-to-door this weekend to ask if anyone has lost their dog.”

“OK,” Aden grumbled before looking up at Lexa with hope. “What if we don’t find her owners?”

Lexa’s gaze lingered on Clarke’s, and it was like they had an entire conversation without having to say anything at all. On a ranch with over one hundred cattle and three horses, what would be the problem with one more animal?

(One more animal that was about to give birth to puppies…)

But in the end, the loving look that Aden was already giving the dog--this dog that he had only known for a few hours--was enough to sway Clarke. She ran a hand along the dog’s belly. “If we can’t find her owners, we can think about adopting her.”

“Like you adopted me?” Aden asked with so much innocence that Clarke ached.

Clarke knew in that moment that they had just taken in another member of their family. “Just like that,” she said. She realized that she would do just about anything to make Aden smile like he was then.

To no one’s surprise, the dog stayed. Aden named her Rey, after his favorite lightsaber-wielding hero.

And then there came the puppies, five in total. Clarke had a lot of exposure to dogs of all ages and sizes through her veterinary school, but seeing Lexa with puppies was priceless. She had never heard Lexa use baby talk, but that seemed to be the only tone of voice Lexa could use with them, even after they soiled the floor. Somehow, rebuking puppies in a high-pitched voice was just not threatening at all.

Aden loved all of them, but both she and Lexa knew that while they could take in one stray, taking in six was a different matter. Luckily, their connections in Polis made it easy to find homes for all of the pups once they were weaned, vaccinated, and fixed.

To Clarke’s surprise, Indra and Marcus (long since moved in together) took two of them. Indra’s normally sullen expression turned into one of outright giddiness as she sat on the ground and let the puppies swarm over her. Marcus took a series of photos of her before joining her on the ground and getting licked on the face by three puppies at once.

But just as puppies could reduce anyone to a blubbering mess of giggles and smiles, Rey was able to inspire Aden to be more responsible. He was responsible for feeding her, brushing her, taking her for romps around the ranch (as if he needed to be told to go on adventures with his new best friend). Even Lexa wasn’t immune to Rey’s charm: she began taking Rey with her around the ranch during the day, although she taught Rey to maintain her distance from the cattle to keep from spooking them. Sometimes Clarke took her to other homes and ranches too, when she knew they had dogs that Rey could play with.

And every night, when she or Lexa tucked Aden into bed, Rey circled at the bottom of his bed and curled up into a tight ball on the sheets to sleep. Clarke knew then that they had made the right choice.

**********

That summer had been a whirlwind. Understandably, everyone wanted to visit the ranch to meet Aden. Clarke’s mother had to come for a solid two weeks and spoil him rotten, while Raven and Octavia (still unmarried, still as happy together as ever) dropped by for a few days to “meet the only man Clarke needs in her life,” as Raven put it. Beyond that, Anya and Indra regularly brought their puppies over to the ranch for family reunions with Aden and Rey, which meant a very busy (and happy) summer.

But now that the guests were gone, and fall was in the air, it meant a return to routines. Aden returned to school, Lexa prepared the ranch for the upcoming winter, and Clarke resumed her more regular visits to homes and ranches around the area.

After a long day of treating another operation’s cattle herd for a respiratory illness, Clarke ached to be home. The hint of sage in the air and pinkening sky and bumps and dips in the dirt road were ushering her back toward her family.

Would Lexa still be covered in a thin layer of dirt from her day in the fields, and would she pull Clarke into a heated kiss when Aden left the room? And Aden, would he be completing his homework, or maybe tossing a ball for Rey out in the yard?

Clarke stepped down on the accelerator to find out, sending up a plume of dust behind her truck’s wheels.

Passing under the gate--long since changed to “Woods-Griffin Ranch”--Clarke parked beside the old truck, which was still running mostly by luck, spit, and chewing gum. In a flurry, Rey ran up to the truck, barking and wagging her tail and generally being far too excited considering it had only been a few hours since she had last seen Clarke.

Clarke scratched behind her ears as she quickly scanned around the ranch. She figured they would be outside on an evening like this…

Their silhouettes were dark against the bright pink clouds along the horizon. Lexa sat confidently atop her horse, reins in one hand, cowboy hat firmly in place, shirt billowing around her in the evening breeze. Aden was beside her, his child’s body seeming miniscule atop the full-sized horse. A cowboy hat, still a little big for him, perched on his head as he lead his horse in a slow circle around Lexa’s.

Clarke almost cheered aloud. He had learned so much over the last summer, but she knew he had been having trouble with direction control. Now, it looked like he was really getting it. It had everything to do with Lexa’s patient instruction and Aden’s persistent attitude. He may have been quiet, and some might assume he was a pushover, but Clarke knew that couldn’t be further from the truth. When Aden set his mind on something, there was nothing that could stop him. And right now, his passion was learning how to ride a horse.

(And, Clarke suspected, following in Lexa’s footsteps as much as possible.)

Clarke walked over to them, Rey bumping up against her side, and rested her arms atop the fence. She watched the two of them with a growing smile, loving the pride that emanated from Lexa as Aden walked his horse around her in circles. “You guys having fun?” Clarke called out to them.

Aden’s face lit up when he saw her. “Look what I can do, Mommy!” He pulled back the reins, bringing his horse to a halt before directing the horse to turn around in a circle, a look of concentration on his face.

“He’s really beginning to get it,” Lexa said proudly as she walked her horse over to Clarke.

(Clarke let her eyes fall down Lexa’s ramrod-straight body and her thighs gripping around the saddle. Seeing Lexa on horseback was one of life’s little pleasures for Clarke.)

“Probably because he has such a good teacher.” It wasn’t a particularly flirtatious phrase, Clarke knew, but her suggestive tone seemed to get the job done. Lexa’s lips fell open as she gazed down at her.

Aden walked his horse over, a look of concentration on his face. “Come ride with us!” he said to her. “Momma’s already got a horse saddled for you.”

“Do you now?” Clarke said, raising her eyebrow at Lexa.

Lexa gave her a small smile. “I thought we could go for a ride. Maybe watch the sunset from the hill.”

On a ranch full of hills, Clarke still knew the one she was talking about. “We better go quick if we’re going to make it.”

“Just waiting on you,” Lexa said with just enough flirt and challenge that Clarke wanted to kiss her.

But instead, Clarke ran to the barn and got herself settled in the saddle. She came out of the barn at a full gallop, Rey trying her best to run along after her, and slowed to a jog once she came alongside Lexa and Aden. “How’s your jog going, Aden?”

“Watch this!” he said, bringing his horse to jog next to hers, and Lexa coming up on her other side.

Clarke kept a close eye on him, but Aden really was getting more confident in the saddle. They kept a steady pace all the way to the top of the hill, where the grasslands spread out all around them and burned golden in the sun’s last rays. Below them, the cattle herd was scattered across the dips and rises of the ranch as they grazed lazily on the last grass of the season. Still, one cow made her deliberate way towards them, an older calf in tow.

Clarke dismounted and greeted Daenerys with a hand running through her thick black fur. “How is my favorite cow doing today? Is Mushu behaving himself?” She had long run out of Game of Thrones-inspired dragon names. Mushu had been Aden’s idea after their last Disney marathon.

Aden jumped from his saddle--he could get down on his own, but couldn’t mount by himself--and ran over to pet Daenerys as well. He had started out riding Daenerys, and Clarke thought he loved the cow almost as much as she did. He tried to pet Mushu as well, but the calf ran away from him and hid behind his mother, still a little skittish.

Clarke felt Lexa come up behind her and slide her arms around her waist. Lexa kissed the side of her cheek. “How was your day, Clarke?”

“It’s a lot better now that I’m here,” she said, settling back into Lexa’s arms. “I’ve decided that cattle aren’t allowed to get sick ever again.”

The sun was just beginning to dip below the horizon, and the chorus of insects was awakening around them. Lexa held her close and rested her chin on Clarke’s shoulder, their bodies melding together as they always had. They watched Aden crouch down and hold his hand out toward Mushu. Eventually, the calf’s curiosity got the better of him, and he inched towards Aden and even let him scratch his ear.

“If they’re not allowed to get sick, doesn’t that mean you’re out of a job?” Lexa asked impishly as she pulled Clarke closer.

“Might be worth it if it means I get to hang out here all day again,” Clarke said, sighing. “I’d be in your hair all the time. You’d never be able to get rid of me.”

“Sounds awful.”

Clarke glanced back to her then, and Lexa’s eyes danced in the soft glow of the setting sun beneath her cowboy hat. Clarke ran her fingers down Lexa’s cheek, unable to help herself anymore. She turned and captured Lexa’s lips with her own, the perfect welcome back home that Clarke needed.

Clarke was brought back to earth by Aden’s excited voice. “He licked my hand!” Aden said with excitement.

Clarke smiled over to him and how he was holding his hand up toward her as evidence that Mushu had in fact licked him. “See? I told you he would start being friendly if you were patient,” Clarke told him with a little laugh.

As the sun slowly disappeared behind the horizon, Clarke knew that this, enjoying the little things with the people and animals she loved, was what life was about. She watched as Aden patted the calf’s head gently and Daenerys watched on. She listened to Rey panting softly in the grass beside them. She felt Lexa’s strong arms around her, grounding her and steadying her and cherishing her.

Clarke knew that home was about the people just as much as about the place. And somehow, she was lucky enough to have found them both.